The Young Socceroos recent experience at the AFC Under-22 Championship qualifiers in Indonesia shows that our young talent needs much more match experience.
The Young Socceroos headed to Indonesia underdone, without captain Curtis Good and with several overseas-based players unavailable. With the squad playing five matches in 10 days and being younger than most of its opponents, it was always going to be a hard slog. But the Australians came away with three wins, a draw and a loss, qualifying for the very first AFC U-22 Championship by the skin of their teeth. Still, the Young Socceroos did what they needed to do, and will now receive more game time which will be invaluable to their development.
“It was a tough 10 days for us.” Young Socceroos coach Paul Okon admits.
“We knew we were underdone. Most of our squad hadn’t played since February or March. The conditions were very hot and humid. To qualify was a big achievement. It gives these boys more games in 2014.”
Okon says his team learned that playing in Asia is no walk-over.
“We learned that Asia is very, very tough. In Oceania most games were a walk in the park. The conditions are very, very different.”
The Young Socceroos recorded a 1-0 win over the hosts Indonesia in their first game, in front of a crowd of 50,000, thanks to a header from Anthony Proia. They then won 3-2 against Macau, with goals coming from Riley Woodcock and two to Luke O'Dea.
“Indonesia, that was probably our best game,” Okon says. “We probably should have won the game by more.”
The Indonesia game was the only late kick-off for the Young Socceroos, with the rest of the matches having a 4pm local time kick off. In the third game Australia managed a 0-0 draw with Singapore after Terry Antonis was controversially red-carded in the first half.
Okon says Macau parked the bus against the Young Socceroos but the team was caught out.
“We got found out on two counter attacks. We need to address it,” he says.
“[Against Singapore] the red card changed that game, and then fatigue set in. It was a crazy decision – Terry got fouled. It was terrible. We played 63 minutes with 10 men. The players reacted well.”
Antonis is hardly known as a dirty player, and the draw against Singapore meant the final two games would be tense. The top two placed teams in the competition would qualify, with Timor Leste and Japan the final opponents. The Young Socceroos took care of Timor 3-0, with goals to O’Dea and two from Jake Barker-Daish, and then ended up losing to Japan 5-0. Despite the heavy loss, Australia managed to qualify after Indonesia beat Singapore, giving the Aussies second spot.
“Japan had showed that they were the best team there,” Okon says.
“Physically they were too strong for us. Technically they’re a very, very good team. They’re in the middle of their season.”
The big defeat to Japan meant Okon and the squad came in for heavy criticism from several quarters. The failure of the Olyroos to qualify for the London Olympics and the recent struggles of the Joeys and Young Socceroos at World Cups adds further fuel to the development fire, and questions about where our youth is headed.
Okon accepts the criticism but calls for some perspective.
“The [5-0] scoreline doesn’t really count in my eyes. We made some basic errors [in that game]. I take that criticism.”
The simple fact is that the draw against Singapore was a huge spanner in the works of qualification. The Young Socceroos were physically spent in their final game and were pitted against a very classy, match-fit and talented Japanese side. The positive is that the Young Socceroos qualified, and head to Vietnam in September for seven days for the ASEAN Football Federation preparatory tournament. Another positive was the brilliant form of 17-year old AIS player Ben Garuccio. After Vietnam they will then travel to the UAE in November for the AFC U-19 Championships. The Indonesia experience and the Vietnam tournament should serve the squad well when it comes to the November competition and tournaments next year.
The lesson from Indonesia is clear. All of our young teams – the Joeys, Young Socceroos and Olyroos – desperately need more competitive matches. Calls from Sydney FC coach Ian Crook and midfielder Nicky Carle to extend the season are spot on. The A-League season and NYL competition is too short, and we need more young players in the top grade. Our best youngsters are simply playing far less games than their Asian rivals. This only harms their development. You can’t replicate the time spent on the field in hard games – time spent in training doesn’t compare.
Until these teams get more match practice, we need to temper our expectations. We also can’t expect to walk over every Asian side. They aren’t American Samoa and Tahiti. Japan and Korea are years ahead of us in youth development, while the likes of Thailand and the Middle Eastern nations are spending big on their kids. The rest of Asia is catching up fast. Across the world countries are reshaping their development programs and improving their coaching structures to catch up with the world leaders in Barcelona and Spain. Without our best players – overseas stars (in this instance people like Good and Dylan Tombides) included - we won’t dominate every opponent. While we want every Australia team to excel and succeed, some realism and some patience have to come into it.