The next batch of Australia’s footballing talent will be on show in Indonesia today, guided by one of our greatest ever Socceroos.
The Young Socceroos take on hosts Indonesia at the Kaharudin Nasution Stadium in their first AFC Under-22 Championship Qualifier, with Paul Okon at the helm as coach. The Young Socceroos will play five matches in 10 days against the hosts, Macau, Singapore, Timor Leste and Japan.
The top two teams and the best third placed team from all groups will qualify for the AFC Under-22 Championship in 2014. This tournament serves as preparation for the AFC U-19 Championship in the United Arab Emirates in November, which in turn serves as the qualifiers for the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
This tournament also comes at an opportune time. It follows some dire points in Australia’s recent junior football history – the Olyroos failing to score a single goal or qualify for the London Olympics, the Young Socceroos exiting the last U-20 World Cup in Colombia at the first hurdle, and the Joeys going out in the round of 16 at the U-17 World Cup in Meixco. Former Australian youth coach Jan Versleijen came under heavy criticism and questions have been asked about our development pathways. Concerns have been heightened as our ageing Socceroos squad attempts to confirm our spot at Brazil 2014.
However, former Socceroo captain Okon believes we are on the right path.
“When you implement changes, when you’re changing the structure, it takes time. I can already see these boys [current Young Socceroos team] that have come through from the Joeys are very familiar at playing a 4-3-3 formation and that’s what we play in our junior development teams,” he says.
“You have to produce players who can play in those positions. It’s not just a case of putting out a formation and saying ‘go ahead and play it’. Every position is specialised, so you need to develop players in those positions and unfortunately that takes a lot of time. These kids need games, they need international games, they need to be hardened up and unfortunately that was a big issue for the Olyroo boys.”
Of the Olympic squad that attempted to qualify for London, Okon says, only three players were playing regular A-League football at that time compared with 65-75% of the players they faced from the UAE and Uzebkistan.
“So we were already chasing our tales from day one. And that’s a problem when you come against quality international opposition that our players are as match-hardened that you need to be.”
This tournament in Indonesia is the first major test for Okon after being appointed as head coach in April. The 40-year old is looking forward to it but is wary of the hot conditions. He takes charge of a very young 23-man squad of players, all under the age of 20.
“Whilst we’d like to win the tournament and certainly qualify for the finals in 2013, the reason we’ve got a young team here is to prepare for the big picture in November,” Okon says.
“We’re really looking to build. We had a very good camp in Brisbane and then a mini-camp in Sydney before we left and the message has not changed since day one. And that’s we’re going to be a team that’s going to play football. And the results will come accordingly to how well we play that football.
“I’ll be looking to rotate our squad. I don’t’ have a team one and team two. We’ll take every game as it comes, and make sure everyone has an opportunity. I don’t want to send anyone home with any major [injury] issues.”
Okon’s Young Socceroos squad features 17 players from the A-League and just two overseas-based players - Giancarlo Gallifuoco and Aaron Lennox. Several overseas-based players, such as Mustafa Amini, were unavailable but Okon says there have been no restrictions in who he could select.
“It was always going to be difficult because it’s a month where a lot of them only have a couple of weeks off and they’re pressured not to play in these tournaments by their clubs so very happy to have at least two,” he says.
“I’m looking forward to how those two boys [Gallifuoco and Lennox] go. Hopefully for Vietnam in September more of the overseas-based players will be available but I really think it gives an opportunity for the home-based players to stake a claim because I’m not going to look at whether the players are playing, or which countries they’re playing in, it’s the best players and who wants to represent Australia the most.”
Okon comes into the tournament with some unique experience to impart. After a fabulous international and club career, both at home and abroad, he has just about seen it all in football. Okon, of course, was also a central part of Australia’s arguably greatest-ever Young Socceroo team, the famous side that reach the semi-finals of the Youth World Cup in Portugal back in 1991.
“When you’re in this age group it’s still development. These guys are professionals but their not seasoned professionals so in a lot of areas you look at it differently, but in others areas some of them are A-League players and they are playing regularly,” he says.
“Hopefully these boy will go on and form the new Olyroos in two years time so it’s a four-year plan for these boys, and after that, if all goes well, they will form a big part of the Socceroos moving forward. When you look at the Spanish team [at Euro 2012] there was only three players over the age of 30 in that team – that’s frightening. To think how competitive Spain’s going to be for the next two to three major tournaments. I think its something that we’re looking at and that’s the opportunity for these boys in the future to step up.”
The question of which is more important at the junior level – development or results – remains a tough one for Okon.
“If I look at myself, when I was in that age group, we qualified for the World Cup in Portugal and for me it was the start of a career in Europe. The experience that we gained from playing that tournament was amazing,” he says.
“I often think back to it and I know a lot of the others players from that tournament do as well. So the opportunity for these boys to replicate the same thing is there in front of them. It is important, there’s no lie, and I’m not going to sit here and say its purely only development, it’s a mix, it’s a blend. Because if you don’t qualify you don’t have, certainly three games possibly four, five, six, however far you progress into that tournament, more games can only help you develop further so it is important. It’s a big challenge but I have a group here who is very hungry, a real humble bunch of boys who are at the start of their careers and I see a massive amount of potential here.”
The recent average age of the Socceroos’ line-up that faced Japan and Denmark was over 30, and Australia had the second-oldest squad at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. A lot of the Socceroos older brigade – Neill, Schwarzer, Kewell, Cahill – want to continue on until Brazil. There has been precious little regeneration of our national team over the last three years, but then again, which younger players have been knocking on the door? There are few that have made their claims so loud that they cannot be ignored for selection.
Okon feels it is a “difficult” situation as with the older, experienced players in big games “you know they’ve been there before and you know exactly what your going to get whereas with younger players, you may well get a fantastic performance but you may also get inconsistency”.
“I think it’s a case of at the moment we don’t have enough of those younger players that are really, really challenging,” he says.
“We have some there, thereabouts on the fringe, but really putting big pressure on the older players, at the moment I haven’t seen that. In terms of after Brazil, it is a bit of a concern. But, again, tournaments like what we’re here for are a great experience for some of these guys who haven’t been in this position to taste it, and you know, like I said, kick on.
Okon wasn’t involved in the Young Socceroos and Joeys World Cups last year, but believes expectations on tournament success have to be reasonable.
“People are kidding themselves if they think we are going to go and produce every year 20 young players, it just doesn’t work like that,” he says.
“While I admit it has slowed down a bit, the production line, I just think that because of those results we’ve had in the past two tournaments, people have started to really, really question it. I find that normal, but the expectations also need to be closely considered because while we are trying to become better and realise there are certain things we need to change, the rest of the world is doing exactly the same. They’re not sitting there sleeping and maintaining what they’ve got, they’re progressing as well. I think that the curriculum, the foundations that the FFA technical committee have put down, it’s going to take time and certainly in years to come in Germany, in Spain, the benefits and the rewards are there, it’s just the matter of being a little bit patient and not expecting things to happen straight away.”
Members of this Young Socceroo squad include the likes of Terry Antonis, Jake Barker-Daish, Josh Brilliante, Corey Brown, Connor Chapman, Mitch Cooper, Jesse Makarounas and Yianni Perkatis. Okon nominates Sydney FC’s Antonis and Melbourne Heart’s Curtis Good as two players who could go on to secure further national team honours. Good has missed this tournament as he is about to sign with English Premier League club Newcastle United.
“I think Curtis has the potential in a short space of time to be knocking on the door of becoming part of the Socceroos squad,” Okon says.
“Terry Antonis has enormous potential, enormous ability, but it’s two years now that Terry’s come on to the scene and this year is really important for him to establish himself and play a full season. He’s not managed to string a lot of games together, for a number of reasons, and now he’s at the age where it’s time for Terry to really, you know, show himself. I think this season you will see a number of these Young Socceroos boys become regulars in A-League teams, which from my point of view, is fantastic.”