Production pain: Why we can't ignore the grassroots

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Focusing purely on the development of elite players and ignoring Australia’s grassroots could lead to more struggles at the national level, according to football organisation T3 Australia.

Much has been made in recent years about the closure of the AIS, the quality of Australia’s football production line and poor results at the national team levels for both males and females.

The introduction of the Skill Acquisition Program (SAP) in the past decade has also been a controversial and costly addition into our football ecosystem.

But to youth coaches Matt Sim and Ehsan Popal, the co-founders of T3 Australia, the debate on youth development is missing out on addressing the needs of the grassroots game and the coaching of social or community players.

The pair believe that by closing the gap between the skills of the elite and the ordinary footballer, thereby improving the overall pool of talent, then the Socceroos and Matildas will benefit.

“We find one of the big reasons why we don’t have so many good players coming through to the national teams is the link with the grassroots,” Popal, a former NPL NSW midfielder with the Sutherland Sharks and Parramatta FC, told The World Game.

“The everyday kid, the social player is doing 18 weeks a year. They train maybe twice a week and play on the weekend, so they’re doing three hours a week.

“Then there’s the dedicated child doing three, four, five days a week and up to 126 hours in an 18-week period, compared to 54 for the social player. The gap between the two is just humungous.

“If you look at that comparison, and both are at grassroots level, then if you look at the overall player pool, there’s a massive gap between the highly skilled and the less-skilled.

“When we go to Japan, the gap between the highly skilled and less skilled in the competition time, the contact time they have, is very little.

"With community soccer in Japan and the representative level, there’s not that much of a gap compared with here.

“In Japan, community football is at the focus of technical skills development, there’s not a layered approach of elitism.

"The Socceroos and the Matildas will be a lot better once we increase that pool of more competent children and technical children.

“We need to get that social player playing more and close that gap with the elite player, then we’ll start to create a culture of development.

"In Japan, you’ve got youth community teams that can beat J.League youth representative teams – that just wouldn’t happen in Australia.

“One of the solutions is to shift the paradigm and look at community football and grassroots football as the nucleus, they’re the nutrients that feed the brain.”

Sim does not advocate Australia importing the Japanese way of producing footballers, despite the Japan Football Association’s success at youth development and with its national team.

However, the former Central Coast Mariners midfielder believes we have to create our own system that plays to our strengths and our unique circumstances as a country.

“When you look back at when we had national team success it was a combination of many different cultures, many different viewpoints on youth development that helped us create high-calibre players,” Sim said.

“Moving forward, it’s about creating something based on our way of life and the Australian way of life is very, very different to the Japanese.

"The Japanese is systematic, is disciplined, which is why they have such success in producing a technical culture.

“We’ve got a different culture, one based on hard work, experiencing many different things whether it’s through sport, education, social, lifestyle whatever it is.

"So we need a viewpoint on development that’s similar, that uses lots of different ways of doing things to create the perfect situation.

“It has to be based on what works for us here. There’s been lots of talking points about the AIS and what worked in the past. But it’s about what works now. What worked 20 years ago might not work now. It may, but it might not.

“You need to look at many different ways that - at the moment - are going to suit our lifestyle. Our society has changed. It’s not easy now.

"Twenty years ago, what I did training compared to what kids do now – you can’t replicate because my mum would let me go out of the house until 8pm because it was safe and normal, it was a society thing to do.

“Whereas it’s a lot different now, that’s not there anymore. We can’t say to our kids go and play on the street and we’ll see you in three or four hours.”

Sim feels that SAP programs have created even more of a barrier between the highly-skilled children and the rest, when instead coaching resources could have been implemented more across the whole playing pool, not just a select bunch.

“The SAP was pretty much brought in so that NPL clubs could have a pathway for players before they hit that Under-13 age group,” he said.

“So Under-12s would train three days a week. That was a great program to bring in, but it put players in a position where there is now 40 players times 40 licenses in Sydney that are now then paying a lot more money obviously than what they would have paid at grassroots.

“So the model probably should have been, 'why don’t we implement more training for the kids at grassroots level and keep their cost low?' That’s what they do in other countries like Belgium.

“That would give you a bigger playing pool because then there would be better players coming out of grassroots that would then funnel into the elite game, and then you can pick better players that are going to come into the game for you because you’re giving more access to more people. It’s just a numbers game.

“The elites should really only make up 1% because at the youth level we don’t have the quality that other nations have, but we have a lot of people playing the game.”

Registration fees for SAP programs in NSW can run up to more than $2,500 per player.

Popal maintains the elite element of football is only a tiny part of the sport, but takes up most of the attention and energy, and that should change.

“In NSW there’s around 230,000 registered players,” he said. “In the Football NSW state league or representative competitions, there’s 12,000 of them. So the elite side represents 5% of the game.

"There’s a lot of discussion around the cost of the game, but cost can be seen as a rudimentary side of the discussion because the elite side represents such a small part of the game.

“If you look at grassroots, it’s affordable for most kids to play. The problem is the subject and the talk is always elite-focused. The cost is more on the elite side.

“Once we start to change our language and be more focused on grassroots, and see the importance of it, you’re going to see that social players play more and increase the overall standard. Because there’s so much focus on the elite-side there’s this perception that it’s $2,000 for everybody.

“But the reality is that there’s a lot of kids paying soccer at grassroots for $200 or $300. The more we can put our focus there, we can start to minimise the gap.”