When former Brazilian star Romario was initially approached by Adelaide City about a possible guest-player stint earlier this year, the last thing his suitors from the City of Churches would have had on their minds would have been be the form of Australia’s Young Socceroos Under 20 team.
But the 40-year-old’s less than impressive showing in his debut match against Central Coast at the weekend has raised questions about the practice of drafting in ageing guns for hire and whether it is impeding the development of this country’s young talent.
Some would argue that the failure of the Young Socceroos to qualify for the World Youth Cup is evidence that we haven’t got our youth development right, and signing overseas players like Romario to play in the A-League only retards that development further.
Respected former Australian junior football coach Les Scheinflug certainly subscribes to that theory, saying in The Australian yesterday that he thought signing “past-their-best” players was seriously harming the local game and undermining the A-League.
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“Do we want to be a retirement village or a serious competition that wants to produce young, exciting Australian players?” Scheinflug asked.
But it’s Scheinflug’s last point that raises its own questions about what Australian football officials want the A-League to be. Does the FFA want the A-League to become a successful competition with clubs that are only focused on winning championships, or is it a breeding ground for the next wave of international stars?
If you look to the top of the A-League table, you’ll see that Melbourne, with five of its 20-man roster hailing from overseas, sits streets ahead of its nearest rival.
On the back of a tumultuous inaugural season, and with a passionate but impatient support base, Victory coach Ernie Merrick was forced to re-jig his squad from last year, bringing in three new faces from Brazil – Fred, Claudinho and Alessandro – and Scotland professional Grant Brebner. (James Robinson, a journeyman striker from England, replaced former Belgian international Geoffrey Claeys on the Victory roster last week.)
You could mount a strong argument that Merrick’s recruiting philosophy is just as damaging to the development of the country’s youth, but try telling that to the 30,000 fans the Victory is regularly getting to its games at the Telstra Dome. If they do happen to turn their successful regular season form into a premiership, you can be sure that other teams will look to copy their formula.
So what does that do for the young players coming through? Where is their chance to gain experience at senior level if a quarter of the eight A-League club squads is taken up by “internationals”? Would they be better off chancing their arm overseas in the manner of someone like Harry Kewell was forced to do before the advent of a strong national club-based competition like the A-League? If they did, wouldn’t that signal a failure of what the A-League should be about?
Despite attracting healthy crowds, and the largely entertaining football on offer, the A-League is heading into an intriguing period under the stewardship of new FFA boss Ben Buckley. A good place for him to start is to decide what the FFA wants and expects from this country’s flagship football competition.