Why Cambodia is more important for Australia than the A-League


A-League clubs have lost some key players at a crucial time in the season to play in the Under-23 Championship qualifiers this week, but this momentary pain for the league could result in significant future gain for Australian football.

Qatar’s triumph at the 2019 Asian Cup was built partly on a group of players coming up through the ranks together.

The 2018 AFC Under-23 Championships saw Vietnam reach the final and millions on the streets of Hanoi and Saigon. That red tide was back again as the senior side, built on the success of that younger team, reached the last eight of the Asian Cup the following month.

Australia winning in Thailand at the 2020 Under-23 tournament may not exactly see people dancing in the streets of Adelaide or Perth but would be significant and provide a platform to build on.

You have to get there first though, hence the qualification mini-tournament in Cambodia this week and a quick period of preparation.

A-League clubs have seen players taken away during the final stage of the domestic season. Such ire is understandable but it is the price to be paid for entry the U23 Championships, a tournament that also provides entry to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Both are, or should be, hugely important for Australia.

It won’t be easy however. Past failures have meant that the Olyroos were not in the top pot of seeds for this week's tournament and have paid the price in the draw.

The group stage starts on Friday against hosts Cambodia, continues with Taiwan and then ends with what should be a crucial duel with South Korea. Only first place guarantees a spot in the U23 Championships in Thailand early next year.

Even this qualification stage should be a cracker however. Kicking off against Cambodia in Phnom Penh is going to be some Friday night.

The Angkor Warriors regularly get crowds of over 40,000 for friendly games but this one should be a blockbuster. A competitive match against Australia will get the juices flowing. These kinds of games, with colour, atmosphere and excitement to spare are the reason why Australia joined the confederation in the first place.

It is no surprise that club coaches don’t see it that way when they lose players. It is not the job, or certainly nowhere near the top of any priority list, of a domestic club coach to worry about the national team. Their focus is on the club that employs them.

Others have to see the bigger picture. Olyroos boss Graham Arnold wants his best team. He gets it in the neck next year when Tokyo 2020 rolls around and Australia aren’t there and more general failure at youth level will be hugely damaging to the long-term health of Aussie football.

Being a former A-League coach only means that Arnold will be more understanding of his former domestic counterparts: it doesn’t change his present responsibilities.

Qualification and preparing for qualification are bigger than a game in the A-League. Domestic coaches are paid not to see it that way but that doesn’t change the fact that doing well this week can lead to doing well in the U23 Championships next year and then perhaps even the Olympics. Other countries plan years of strategic development around such landmarks.

The Koreans for one. It was 1984 the last time the country didn’t appear at the Olympics and coach Kim Hak-beom is a little put out at Australia doing so badly in past youth tournaments that they have been placed in the same group.

He admitted that the presence of the Olyroos makes it harder to finish top in a qualification stage the young Taeguk Warriors would normally expect to cruise through -- had Arnold said something similar then no doubts the accusations of Aussie arrogance would come thick and fast.

Even though Korea won’t be calling their European talent until (hopefully) the tournament itself, the team spent a month in Thailand training (made easier admittedly by the K-League being out of season) and played eight warm-up games. Australia’s friendly in Malaysia pales into insignificance.

It’s hard to begrudge Arnold the rare chance he had to get some gametime in before it all kicks off in Cambodia. Australia need to be in the AFC U23 Championships next year. And even if they don’t make it, there has to be at least some sense that an effort was made. Otherwise what was the point of joining the AFC? The competitions and the oppositions deserve such respect.

There will be plenty of other A-League games but this is the only chance for Australia to qualify for the AFC U-23 Championships and the 2020 Olympics and maybe get the youth engine fired up so it can drive the whole national team set-up forward.