I asked a recently-arrived A-League player what he though of the standard of game in this country. The response was unnervingly frank.
“Everybody is cruising here. There is never any pressure to push hard,” he said.
“The players never do the extra work we do in Europe. Nobody arrives early for training or stays late for the extra sessions. That surprised me, because that’s what we’re taught from a young age. Every day is a battle to get better.”
It was a damming indictment. And so it went on.
“The young guys…they’re not obsessed with improvement. I noticed that on the first day. That’s how you make it to the top. But since the wages are pretty good and there’s no relegation, it’s an easy life.”
I wish I could tell you I was shocked. But I’ve heard themes similar to this, over and over now, for several years. But isn’t it time we took notice of these comments?
It was noted in chilling fashion this week by Western Sydney Wanderers manager Markus Babbel, who savaged Australia’s lack of promotion and relegation.
“Here in Australia, you live in a paradise city, a paradise country. Because in Europe, it is much more difficult if you can go down in a second division," Babbel said.
“Mentally, you want to give 100 percent but you can't because your head is not doing the right things because the pressure is so high. But here, nothing can happen. You can’t drop down.”
To hear that from a current A-League coach is frightening. And what about this from arguably the most gifted player the A-League has ever seen, Keisuke Honda?
“When I played in Italy, Russia and Holland, I surprised people,” he said. “For me, it’s usual. I don’t think it’s usual for Australian people. I’m talking with younger players to do more. I think that they should make effort even when they get a day off. That’s why I’m here. I want to change.”
Standing beside him, this followed from teammate Georg Niedermeier.
“To be honest I’m more used to Keisuke’s attitude than the Australian attitude,” he said. “The heat makes us train only one time a day. You shouldn’t rest in the afternoons and Keisuke is a pretty good example for the young players in this country. They should keep on working on days off.”
Do we need any more evidence? These views were presented rather tamely when compared to Leroy George, who gave an infamous account of the “super-relaxed” lifestyle when he departed Melbourne Victory.
And before he left Central Coast, Wout Brama gave an interview that was largely missed by the Australian press.
“Two weeks ago the coach resigned. It is not a good year, but they [the Mariners] are used to it,” he told Nos.nl. “And because you can not be relegated anyway, the stress is not so bad.”
At some point, Australian football has to address this elephant in the room. The A-League has simply become too comfortable.
The most obvious point, as pointed out by Babbel and Brama, is the lack of relegation. It’s allowing clubs to get away with doing enough to survive, rather than thrive, knowing there’s no punishments. And that easy-going mentality has infiltrated the entire league.
In our search for stability as a sport, we’ve made an unwilling trade: we’ve lost our hunger.
Unfortunately, this is borne out by the lack of Australian players in the top five European leagues, which you can now count on one hand: Mathew Ryan, Aaron Mooy and Mathew Leckie. It’s a shocking statistic for a nation that aspires to greater heights.
Admittedly, the NSL didn’t have relegation in the 1990s, but it did have a culture that promoted hunger. Even teenagers knew that making it in Australia wasn’t enough. Players had to be self-motivated.
Put simply, we have to find a way to get it back. Given we won’t be returning - thankfully - to the NSL’s instability, we need to find a model that produces the quality we so desperately need. Clearly, the current one no longer does.