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The class system within Australian football’s youth development needs a thorough review

Australia was the first nation eliminated from the 2022 AFF U-16 Youth Championship in Indonesia.

Entering last night’s clash with Malaysia, the team had lost their matches to Myanmar and Cambodia, with seven goals conceded and four scored.

Many in Australia would hold the view that such results are completely unacceptable for a wealthy nation striving to develop its most talented footballers more aggressively than ever before.

In recent years, the obvious trend in improvement in nearby Asian opposition has resulted in concerns around exactly from where our next generation of stars is coming, whether a second Asian Cup senior title is further away than ever and exactly what the long term ramifications for the Socceroos might be.

On the surface, the poor results of the junior squad could be used to raise alarm bells amid cries of an appalling state of affairs in Australia’s youth development systems. Alternatively, one could argue that across the last six editions of the event, Australia has advanced to the semi-finals on five occasions.

Back and forth we go, with the negative voices well aware of the fact that the failure in the current campaign is the second in succession and the more hopeful suggesting that the national curriculum is producing, and the most recent disappointment is merely a blip on the path to long-term success.

Personally, I believe the answer actually lies somewhere in between.

While the tournament has been nothing but a disappointment and Football South Australia Technical Director Michael Cooper has proven unable to gel his squad into a competitive one, blame for the results lies far beyond the players themselves and the people charged with preparing the team.

The boys who have given their all in Indonesia are blessed with skill and commitment as aspiring professional players. However, the odds of them being the most talented and best of their age in the country are slim and none.

There are hundreds and potentially thousands of players around the country more skilled, gifted and determined. Yet due to the fundamentally ridiculous nature of the youth structures in Australian football, most are unlikely to have been spotted or considered for the tournament – and many are unlikely to ever be so.

In a nutshell, the young men wearing the green and gold in Indonesia emanate from families with the means to pay the exorbitant costs associated with providing them with the best development available and subsequent selection in representative terms.

This reverberates through NPL youth play right around the country.

Football generic

(Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Doing some anecdotal research involving parents of Under 14, 15 and 16 players in Sydney, families are paying anywhere between $1750 and $2300 for the privilege of seeing their children run out in the colours of NPL clubs during the winter season.

A number of parents I spoke to actually chuckled at their club’s generous offer to provide a ‘free’ uniform, knowing full well that nothing appears to come free in junior football in Australia.

Many families will also spend sums up to four times that amount to enrol their kids in lavish international or locally based academies, with promises of pathways to Europe and skill development that rarely become reality.

Youth football in Australia is like the makers of chocolate eggs at Easter and the machine that is the Christmas industry, fleecing parents of their hard-earned for fear of mum and dad disappointing a child and not providing equal opportunities to those received by the Joneses next door.

As the academies flourish and coaches and technical directors enjoy stable employment, the number of lost and unidentified kids continues to rise, with wealth and subsequent access to the game seemingly not on the radar of those supposedly attempting to find and nurture the best young players.

As a frequent attendee at matches in the north-west of Sydney, many of the young girls and boys I see are far beyond their playing depth, playing only because mum and dad can rustle up the funds. All the while, footballers in some of the less affluent areas of the city are never spotted, never believed in and destined never to represent.

I saw that reality in spades when I was asked to MC the Fleetwood Town International Football Academy’s open and free talent identification camp in early 2020. Players from right across the Sydney basin came to show their wares, the talent was simply astonishing, many took up the offer of continued free coaching and development with FTIFA, and some are now members of senior NPL squads.

Without that camp, many of those players would most likely have been lost to the domestic game and potentially distanced from football entirely.

I’d suggest that there is almost certainly a group of U-16 players in Australia right now that, if provided the same opportunities afforded to those currently wearing national colours, would play them off the park with ease.

In desperate attempts to professionalise NPL clubs, the money required to do so is being gouged from well-meaning parents with the funds to do so. That translates to a class system that freezes out thousands of players who may well be superior to those blessed with often undeserved opportunity.

It also translates to an U-16 team playing abroad that potentially misrepresents the actual talent that exists in Australian football.

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