Golden Generation midfielder Josip Skoko fears for the future of Australia’s national teams, insisting lack of passion from emerging youngsters allied to funding shortfalls and scant opportunities at club level are a toxic mix.
As the limitations of Australia’s next generation were laid bare by the 2-0 lesson handed to the Olyroos by Korea Republic at the AFC U-23 Championship, Skoko warned that qualification for future AFC Asian Cups and FIFA World Cups will be anything but foregone conclusions.
Part of a celebrated Australian alumni including Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Lucas Neill, Tim Cahill, Mark Bresciano and Vince Grella, Skoko isn’t sure where successors of a similar calibre are going to come from.
A lack of A-League minutes, or a similar paucity of game time at their overseas clubs, has stunted the growth of next gen Socceroos hopefuls, whilst rival nations across Asia continue to invest and deliver opportunities to their new breed.
But he believes there’s another culprit in Australia’s failure to produce technically adroit, free-thinking footballers - a disconnect in their love for the game.
“When we were developing (back in the era of the NSL) there was this passion for the game we had, in terms of our upbringing,” said the 51-cap Socceroo.
“That was huge, we loved the game so much and would go out and train on our own after regular sessions. That’s how much it meant to us.
“Today, everything is about ‘ah we’re not training enough’. Well, go out and train by yourself.
“If you want to make it you have to do whatever it takes, no matter what.
“Now everybody is worried solely about ‘making it’ - rather than just going out there for the love it and learning skills that way.”
A one-time Premier League star at Wigan Athletic, with successful spells in Belgium, Turkey and Croatia, Skoko is back at his roots in Victoria heading up football operations at NPL club North Geelong Warriors, where former Ajax and AZ keeper Joey Didulica is on the coaching staff.
And what he’s witnessed among the next batch of hopefuls has been instructive.
With Skoko questioning the idealism of players on the one hand, he also bemoaned football’s place in Australia as a high participation but poorly funded code.
“Other countries (in Asia and elsewhere) are investing so much more than us, they have larger populations and are footballing countries, which we are not,”’added Skoko.
“So qualifying for big tournaments is going to get harder and harder. It’s going to be an achievement in itself because that’s where we’re at right now.
“We are not a footballing country. We’ve tried to act like one but we’re not. The finances aren’t there and the budgets aren’t there.
"At least, even in the less wealthy European countries, football is number one and gets the backing, so they can artificially recreate what has happened in the past (in terms of success).
“We can’t do that and just keep falling further behind.”
Watching youngsters drop into a black hole of inactivity in the crucial age group between 15 and 19 distresses Skoko, with a smattering of NYL matches and cameos of the bench at A-League level a potential career killer.
“It’s one of the biggest issues - they don’t have enough games,” he added.
“They’re not juniors, they’re not seniors ... they don’t have a league where they’re getting good exposure.
"At the same age we were getting 30 or 40 games a season (mainly in the NSL). So how do you expect them to develop?”
The closure three years ago of the Australian Institute of Sport, the Canberra-based finishing school which counted Skoko, Brett Emerton, Viduka and Grella among its graduates, was a significant loss, according to Skoko.
“About 50 percent of our group of players came through that system,” he said. “The knowledge we gained from that was huge. It was a big part of the picture.”
Asked if Australia might ever again be blessed with a golden generation mark II, Skoko replied wistfully: “It’s going to be difficult because everything came together for us as a group of players.
“The right conditions were there for it to happen, whether by design or not.
“It can't happen in the same way again. But if we are a bit more efficient about things, and funding is there and we do things a bit differently, then you give yourselves a chance.
“There’s no magic wand that will fix things. All you can do is as much as you can and hopefully things go in the right direction.”