Luke Casserly, FFA’s head of national performance, has acknowledged that a radical rethink is required to put Australia back on the international youth map after a litany of failures.
Australia’s standing in Asia - let alone the broader football world - at under-age level has plummeted in recent years.
According to those in charge of the current crop of young talent, this is a direct result of under-investment, a misaligned football calendar and an A-League where opportunities for emerging talent are scarce.
Sixteen of Graham Arnold’s 24-man squad at the AFC Under-23 Championship qualifiers in Cambodia are on the bench for their clubs in an illustration of the hurdles he must surmount on the trail to Tokyo 2020.
The Joeys have qualified for November’s Under-17 World Cup in Brazil and the Olyroos are on course to reach the final round of Olympic Games qualifying, but the big picture isn’t pretty.
Last week former Young Socceroos and Under-23s turned Matidas coach Ante Milicic gave a damning indictment of the current state of affairs, saying: “Our underage programs, they're not serious programs. They're not designed for qualification. Simple as that.”
Whilst pointing out that looming A-League expansion will increase opportunities for teenage talent, former Socceroo Casserly told The World Game: “I agree with Ante in that if you are going to be consistently competitive at international level you either need to be prepared for that challenge by playing week-in week-out at club level, or you must have the necessary national team programs in place.
“At the moment we don’t really have either. In terms of club opportunities there’s a real bottleneck after the age of 16 for our most talented young players to play at a high level.
“That’s why I’m excited by two new teams entering the competition over the next two years (Western United and South West Sydney) and also the discussions around a second division.
“There’s a great amount of talent out there but when you only have nine teams and five foreign spots in each the chance for them to shine is just not there.”
To illustrate the point, in Thailand there are two professional divisions with 18 teams in each, and ample opportunity for young players to flourish.
Addressing the issue of funding - or lack of it - whilst Asian nations splurge on youth development at both club and international level, Casserly admits Australia has been left lagging.
The vexed question of A-League clubs objecting to releasing players for under-age international duty is another issue which has recently come to the fore with the Olyroos.
“A lot of these nations we’re up against have huge funding, be it from government or other benefactors, for their youth teams, plus big leagues with promotion and relegation,” added Casserly.
“Their under-age national teams run from age 15 up to under-23 (whereas Australia only field teams at under-17, 20 and 23 levels).
“They compete in multiple tournaments throughout any given year and we don’t do that. It’s a big advantage.
“I still feel we punch reasonably above our weight but the gap between supposed second tier nations like Thailand, Vietnam, Qatar and UAE to the so-called top-tier nations is getting smaller and smaller. They are investing huge amounts and you can see the rewards.”
With Australia’s under-age teams only qualifying for five of the last 14 major tournaments, Casserly sees the under-20s and 23s as Australia’s most problematic age groups.
“For the Joeys, if you’re 15 or 16 and playing national premier league each weekend it’s a decent level for you but when you’re 19 or 20 and not playing in the A-League, the NYL or NPL isn’t the right level,” he said.
“The difference from that level and international football is immense. It’s just not challenging enough for our best young players.”
In a utopian world, Casserly would like to see the A-League aligned with Asia where most leagues run from March to November.
“That’s something which would help enormously from a national team perspective,” he said. “It would make things much easier, especially surrounding club versus country discussions. For me, a re-alignment absolutely makes sense.”
Casserly admits Australia “needs to look outside the box” to boost funding for its myriad national teams.
“What’s really tough for us is that we have so many agendas across the game,” he pointed out.
“There is so much we need to be across, so many programs, we just don’t have the resources to please everyone and do everything we’d like to do.
“We have to make choices and when you do that you invariably have to let somebody down, and something has to give.
“And right now our under-age national team programs just aren’t at the level I would like.”