The Australian football landscape has been no stranger to controversy, endless debates and the odd scandal over the years - but then again, I am not sure we’d have it any other way.
As an old relative of mine once said about her husband of four decades, “he’s only happy when he’s miserable”, and I am starting to think that lifelong patrons of the game here subscribe to the same adage.
The last four months alone have been plagued by unprecedented turmoil since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to stop and take stock of where we might have gone wrong.
Ironically, the Australian football fraternity has done the same and after being forced into hiatus, we’ve sifted through the sands of time and discovered that many mistakes have been made but few lessons learned.
Existing issues that have haunted us for years have been resurrected once again, like the fractured youth development pathways, the increasingly suspect role of Member Federations and agenda-driven types putting their own interests ahead of the game.
So, you could imagine my delight when I made the trip out to Wetherill Park one Thursday morning and discovered that none of these problems or personalties existed at New South Wales football academy, Futboltec.
Established in 2009 by former A-League players and brothers, Glen and Jason Trifiro, the place has become renowned for developing a host of promising local footballers and working with some existing greats too.
A stroll through their modest but impressive set-up reveals a gym, indoor training pitch, locker room and upstairs viewing gallery.
An array of shiny trophies are stacked behind a glass cabinet and nestled in the corner is a coffee machine with Julius Meinl beans stacked proudly behind it (Socceroo Josip Skoko is the Australian distributor for the brand).
Upon closer inspection, the walls are adorned with a signed Matildas kit and football jerseys from the likes of Liam Reddy, Paul Okon, Skoko and Marcelo Carrusca - many of whom have scrawled personalised messages of thanks to the Futboltec family.
The locker room walls have inspiring quotes from some of the worlds most iconic athletes emblazoned on them; from Connor McGregor to Michael Jordan and Cristiano Ronaldo, and the gym room floor has a series of motivational sayings etched into the metal panels.
After making my way upstairs to view the pitch down below, I find former Newcastle Jets midfielder and Futboltec Head Coach Devante Clut training two professional footballers, one of whom is Australia U-23 representative, Joe Caletti.
“Hey Joe!” I shout from up top. “You are looking sharp!”
“Thanks!” He yells back through heavy breaths. “I’ve been coming here since I was 10 so this is my bread and butter.”
After training with the Futboltec crew for over a decade, Caletti makes the rapid-fire drills that Clut oversees look rhythmic and effortless but they’re far from it and even the most experienced players can take several sessions to adjust.
During the course of Caletti’s career, the tidy former Brisbane Roar midfielder has always been credited for his ability to work well in tight areas and after a recent spell with Floro Sportsklubb in the Norwegian second division, he is the first to credit Futboltec for the work they’ve done with him.
“I’ve been going to the Trifiro brothers since I was about 10 years old and watched it grow from organised sessions at the local park to the amazing facilities they have now,” he said.
“I truly believe that my identity as a player was crafted while working with the Trifiro brothers as a lot of it is based on technique, footwork and the little details, whilst being sharp and intense.”
Throughout this 50 minute session, the players are put through their paces and required to weave in and out of tight spaces while controlling the ball, dribbling, passing and shooting - all at lightning speed.
By the end of it, participants will achieve more touches on the ball than they ever would during a 90-minute game and the programs are specifically designed to enhance a player’s technical abilities.
Another Futboltec evangelist is Matildas star and recent Olympique Lyonnais Feminin recruit, Ellie Carpenter, who describes the Trifiro brothers as “two of the best people out there.”
“Glen and Jason have helped me immensely throughout my career,” Carpenter said from France.
“Starting with them as an 11-year-old, I would not be the player I am today without their help and time. I can’t thank them enough.”
So what prompted both Jason and Glen to form the academy over a decade ago?
"We were quite technical players growing up and we just felt that the coaches that we were with, some were and some were not, we didn't feel that the environment was conducive for that type of player,” said Glen, who is affectionately known as “Tricky” in football circles.
"If you looked at the national teams, they've changed now, but the old national teams, there were never really ball players in key areas and we felt that it was a little bit lost, that type of style, that type of player.”
“That's not to say that that's the only way forward because a player has to have everything but what about those young, small kids that are sitting on the bench every week getting their five minutes just because of the fact that they're a different type of player or they're not effective as 13-year-olds on big fields?”
"We grew up with the mindset that there's so much more that you can get out of these kind of players if the environment was correct.”
From there, the Trifiros started working in small groups with a “massive emphasis” on technique and that’s when they were introduced to a young Caletti and 11-year-old Carpenter.
Soon after, the global football trend started to shift and Barcelona’s ‘Tiki Taka’ style became highly revered and the demand for more technically gifted players shot through the roof.
“All of a sudden, all the players that we were working with for all those years started playing full matches and they were the ones that were signed first," Glen said.
"Then it branched out from that where, people would say, 'he's a really top player, where is he doing his extra work?' He's at Futboltec.
“We began to get a style of player that was connected to us. I think people started to come to work with us because they wanted to improve that side of their game or they wanted to be in an environment that was conducive to that type of player.”
11 years on and what started off in local parks between two brothers has expanded to four facilities across New South Wales, attracted lucrative sponsorships and seen close relationships with A-League clubs forged, all the while earning respect nationally and internationally for the work that they do.
Four additional coaches have come on board, including Clut who has been there since day one as a player, full-time coach and resident photographer.
At a time when cost to play has also come under the microscope, the one thing that parents are assured of with Futboltec is complete “honesty” and knowing exactly where every cent is spent.
"When you look at the product that we offer, for our full-time program, we do double the amount of sessions, games, friendlies and tournaments that they get anywhere else. We are, per session, extremely cheap but obviously it is still a commitment financially,” Glen said.
“What we say to the parents is that you can pay, for example, monthly payments that last for six or seven months rather than an upfront payment.
"If you ever want to leave, there's no lock-in. We're not those kind of people. We believe in our environment - if you are unhappy, then you go elsewhere, if you're happy, then this is actually where your money goes.
"People see the money that we put into our facilities and what we offer our kids and how professional we are. We really don’t have anything to hide.”
It’s rare in today’s climate to hear a private football academy say that and the reality is, the proof is in the pudding with Futboltec graduates deployed globally in the Superliga, at Red Bull Leipzig, Olympique Lyonnais Feminin and Club Brugge, just to name a few.
“The fact that players are moving now from our program into European academies younger gives them a better opportunity to be at a really world class or elite level and the quicker they get to be around the best in the world.”
Further still, when professional players feel the need to improve their fitness or work on their technical skills, the Futboltec doors are always open to them; free of charge.
“You have to understand, these guys are professional footballers and they're in a situation where they want to keep fit or they want to keep active and we have a product and we have an environment that they feel will help them.”
Earlier this year, Jason and Glen also welcomed the Matildas squad and allowed the team to use their facilities ahead of the Olympic Qualifiers when the pitches were washed out due to extreme weather.
But the most rewarding aspect for Glen doesn’t come in the way you’d expect it, although seeing off his students to Europe is a proud moment for him, receiving messages of praise from parents is what gives his soul satisfaction.
“It's not just about the level of football that we're creating, but we're actually moulding children in their everyday life," Glen said.
“A message from a parent to say that we haven't just helped her son's football but he's also got so much more confidence in everyday life now. 'He was having issues at school, now he feels good about himself'. They go through their lives with a bit more purpose about what they’re trying to achieve.”
With my morning at Futboltec drawing to a close and Clut wrapping up his time with the two players, a young boy who would be no more than 10 years old, walks through the gym and puts his things down.
As he begins to tie his shoes and prepare for his one-on-one session, he can’t tear his eyes away from the training paddock and all of a sudden I’m reminded of the fact that every footballer to ever set the world alight started off just like this - full of hope, passion, hunger and with a football pitch set firmly in their sights.
In an era and an industry where it’s hard to know who to trust, it’s nice to know that at Futboltec, the game always comes first.