Australia’s sports fans are understandably focused on the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup at the moment but they should be aware of what they are missing out on this weekend.
Ante Milicic has his hands full as head coach of the Matildas but had things gone a little differently then he could be in charge of a different team in a different World Cup that is going on right now - the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Last October at the AFC U-19 Championships in front of a handful of spectators in Indonesia, Australia had to surpass Korea Republic’s final result against Vietnam in order to win their group and progress.
The Taeguk Warriors won 3-1 but Milicic’s men were held to a 1-1 draw by Jordan. Korea went through and ended up reaching the final and then booked a place in the U-20 World Cup.
It has been going well for Korea. Now the young Taeguk Warriors are preparing for the World Cup final against Ukraine on Sunday (AEST) in Poland and should they win it would be a major feather in Asia’s cap. Korea have defeated South Africa, Argentina, Japan, Senegal and Ecuador and there is a real chance that Ukraine will be next on the list.
Much depends on star player Lee Kang-in. Just 18 and already with Valencia, the Spanish club has already slapped an €80 million (A$130m) release clause in his contract. With one goal and four assists so far he is in the running to be named as the tournament’s best player.
But it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There have been debates in the past in Australia as to whether A-League clubs had to release their players for youth tournaments during the season. It is understandable that clubs seek to look after their own interests but there is little such debate about whether talent should stay in the K-League or go to various tournaments. They go.
And that is one reason why Korea tends to qualify for international tournaments. It is why the last Olympics football tournament that the men didn’t appear in was 1984.
Korea have only missed three of the last 15 U-20 World Cups. The country takes them seriously, the Korean FA takes them seriously, the clubs release players - not always without grumbling - and the media pays them plenty of attention.
Australia have especially fond memories in 1991 and 1993 when the team reached the last four of the U-20 showpiece. The team from the former tournament contained plenty of future star such as Tony Popovic, Paul Okon, Steve Corica and Kevin Muscat. The last four was reached two years later when Milicic scored in the third place play-off loss to England.
Missing out on the last three tournaments is a worry. Any team can fail once, sometimes the fates or form can conspire against anyone but three in a row suggests that there is something lacking.
It not only deprives the youngsters of international and tournament experience, it suggests that the quality is not coming through as much as in the past.
Korea and Japan have consistently produced technically gifted young players over the years. I spent a few weeks earlier this decade travelling all over Japan to study a system recognised as the best in Asia. It is extremely well organised with professional clubs, academies, schools, universities all playing a major part. It took years, dedication and money for it to be set-up and there has been something similar in Korea.
The relative lack of space in these countries compared to Australia can be a boon at times as it makes everything easier to organise and keep an eye on and means that players often grow up playing in tight spaces which does not harm the development of technique.
Lee Kang-in, who first made his football mark as a seven year old in a football reality show on television showing that a country’s football culture is also important, is a symbol of this new Korean team.
If they won the U-20 World Cup, it would be huge for the country and big for Asia. it would also remind Australia that when it comes to youth football and tournaments, they are missing out.