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From Joeys to Roos

by Engelbert Schmidl on Feb 22, 2012

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Amid everything else going on in the tumultuous world of Australian football, it would be forgivable not to have noticed the FFA’s recent appointment of former Socceroo Alistair Edwards to the position of head coach of the Joeys, the under 17 national team.

Edwards and assistant Tony Vidmar have been charged with reviving Australia’s flagging international reputation at this level following a middling performance at last year’s U17 World Cup in Mexico, where the Joeys finished third in their group, as well as Australia’s failure to qualify for the 2009 and 2007 editions of the tournament.

Put quite simply, the blowtorch has been ignited and the flame will be applied to FFA national technical director Han Berger if there is another poor showing at U17 level.

Anything less than a round of 16 or quarterfinal result for the Joeys will be treated by Berger’s critics as further proof that his grand vision is more style than substance when it comes to results. Less than stellar recent displays by the U23 Olyroos and the Young Socceroos at the U20 World Cup in Colombia last year - where Australia finished bottom of its group with one draw - have hardly helped the Dutch coach’s cause among increasingly sceptical fans and media.

But does it even really matter - aside from the issue of national pride and wanting to see our teams do well - how we fare at the U17 World Cup?

In terms of player development, which it can be argued is the most important factor when determining the merits of underage representative tournaments, a look at Australia’s performances in eleven U17 World Cup tournaments from 1985 to 2005 (including non-qualification in 1997) shows up some very interesting statistics when it comes to long-term player development.

First, a quick explanation about the methodology and sources used: I have not included U17 squads from 2006 to now because the players are generally still too young to have made an impact at national senior team level, and squad and team information is also a little scant; I took squad information mainly from the FIFA website and cross-checked that against information on the excellent Australian player database compiled by Greg Stock and Tony Persoglia at ozfootball.net along with the usual Google searches; I’ve included the players from the squad that lost to New Zealand and so failed to qualify for the 1997 Egypt tournament.

Here are some basic figures from the 11 tournament sample spanning 20 years from 1985 to 2005:

* Forty out of the 199 players in the sample went on to play for the senior national team;
* On average, 3.63 players from each squad went on to play for the senior national team;
* 16 of those 40 earned 10 caps or fewer for the Socceroos;
* 11 of those 40 earned between 11 and 30 caps;
* Four of those 40 earned 31 to 50 caps;
* Nine have earned 51 or more caps for the Socceroos.

The interesting aspect of all this comes when you examine which U17 squads have had the most players go on to the senior national team. The common sense assumption might be that squads that performed well at U17 World Cups would probably produce more players for the senior national team — this does not necessarily hold up to scrutiny.

A comparison of the much-maligned 1997 squad and the 1999 squad that went within a penalty kick in the final against Brazil of winning the World Cup gives a stark illustration that tournament results have little bearing on the number and quality of players from the squad who will go on to play a role with the Socceroos.

The 1997 team racked up the usual cricket scores against Pacific Island nations before crashing out 1-0 to New Zealand in Christchurch. From that squad, Mark Bresciano (57 caps) and Jason Culina (58 caps) both went on to play major roles in Socceroo squads, and Nicky Carle (seven caps) and Travis Dodd (one cap) have been excellent A-League players.

In 1999, Australia topped its group (losing to Brazil, but beating Germany and Mali) and progressed to the final only to lose 8-7 on penalties to Brazil. As with the 1997 squad, four players from 1999 would go on to play for the senior national team: Josh Kennedy (29 caps), Scott McDonald (25 caps), Jade North (22 caps), and Adrian Madaschi (four caps).

While Kennedy, McDonald and North have served the national team well, none of the three could be said to have made the sort of contribution Bresciano and Culina have made (and, in Bresciano’s case, still might). So, from this example, it can be said that even failing to qualify does not necessarily mean players will not go on to make an outstanding contribution to the senior national team.

This, though, is not an isolated example.

The 1993 Japan tournament saw Australia earn a respectable quarterfinal place after finishing second in its group before being knocked out 1-0 by eventual runners-up Ghana.

Similarly, Australia finished second in its group at the 1995 Ecuador tournament before bowing out 3-1 in a quarterfinal with Brazil.

Only two players, Hayden Foxe (11 caps in a cruelly stunted career) and Paul Bilokapic (two caps), progressed to Socceroo level from the 1993 squad. Contrast that to the five players who would earn a senior team call-up from the 1995 squad: Brett Emerton (91 caps), Harry Kewell (55 caps), Chris Coyne (seven caps), Danny Allsopp (three caps), Nick Rizzo (one cap). Yet both squads achieved an almost similar result at their respective World Cup tournament.

Just one more comparison between squads to really highlight how little value the results of a single tournament have as an indicator of long-term player development.

The squad that played in the 1989 Scotland tournament was regarded as a highly talented crop. It provided six players to the Young Socceroos squad that lost 1-0 in the 1991 U20 World Cup semi-final to host nation and eventual winners Portugal — which included such ‘golden generation’ stalwarts as Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Joao Pinto.

But at the 1989 Scotland tournament, this talented crop of players failed to fire and finished bottom of their group with a solitary point gained from a draw with the USA. Two years later in Italy at the 1991 tournament, Australia would restore some pride by topping its group and then losing 2-1 in a quarterfinal against perennial power Argentina.

Six players from the 1989 squad would eventually make the step up to national team football (that’s almost twice as many as the average 3.6 per squad that usually does so): Mark Schwarzer (94 caps), Tony Popovic (58 caps), Zeljko Kalac (54 caps), Steve Corica (41 caps), Mark Babic (eight caps), and Ross Aloisi (five caps).

The better performing 1991 squad had only two players, Craig Moore (52 caps) and Paul Agostino (18 caps) don a Socceroo cap.

Once again, it becomes evident that the snapshot provided by an U17 World Cup tournament into the nation’s developing playing stock is almost negligible as an indicator of future quality.

On average, we know about three to four players will emerge from each squad as Socceroos; many will go on to have solid but unremarkable careers in either lower-tier leagues overseas or in the A-League; and quite a few will play in state leagues or drop out of the game entirely.

As noted by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in their book Soccernomics when discussing baseball management whiz Billy Beane (of Moneyball fame), a 17-year-old kid is just too raw to really be able to ascertain future quality:

“Only a handful of world-class players in each generation, most of them creators — Pele, Maradona, Wayne Rooney — reach the top before they are eighteen. Most players get there considerably later. You can be confident of their potential only when they are more mature.”

Of course it’s nice to see our young players do well on the global stage against their peers.

But underage World Cups need to be kept in perspective as a small part of an elite player development program. Many players who one day represent the Socceroos might not always shine as youngsters and may require a few years to put on muscle, lose weight, gain experience, sharpen their thinking or just improve their attitude.

FFA - and Han Berger no doubt knows this - needs to put sufficient resources into areas such as making the national youth league as strong as possible and giving young players opportunities to play in good learning environments at both A-League and state league levels.