As the A-League seeks expansion, the journey of Aziz Behich from suburban NYL discard to World Cup and Champions League footballer is a metaphor for the glorious potential of Australian football.

By John Didulica, Chief Executive, Professional Footballers Australia

The young player sat uncomfortably in a plastic seat in a damp cafe, looking downward.

As recently appointed Director of Football at Melbourne Heart, I had lived many of these meetings. Agents, friends of friends, well-meaning uncles; all hoping to leverage a relationship to give a shot at a contract to a young player they believed in, within an incredibly fragmented and disjointed system.

The meeting was unremarkable other than the despondency I sensed in the player. He was clearly anxious or nervous or sensed the slipping dream of becoming a professional. As if this was yet another audition for the dream role on Broadway that would end in rejection.

Later that day I met with our coaches, John van’t Schip and Ante Milicic, to plan for our first regional camp as Melbourne Heart.

Whilst there was an adventure to be had to sign our top end talent, there was the more immediate task of finding players for the very short term – like this weekend – purely to make up the numbers.

We scratched through our spreadsheets. Our scraps of papers and weathered note-pads. We needed bodies to build a training squad for our first pre-season match as Melbourne Heart – a week long community camp in Geelong.

As we struggled to find the numbers we needed, I thought back to the meeting I’d had earlier that morning.

“What about Aziz Behich?” I said, half as a reflex to the meeting I’d had but half thinking it actually wasn’t a bad idea.

My instincts were confirmed instantly – with JvS and Ante immediately lifting their heads up from their notepads to look up at me with smiles, as if a light-bulb had gone up in their collective minds.


We had tracked the Melbourne Victory National Youth League team closely that season. We would head out to the bleachers at the Veneto Club and watch the young players melt in the searing midday sun on the synthetic pitch.

We were devastated that Mitch Langerak was contracted but another player who we’d often comment on was Aziz, a raw, aggressive and competitive left winger. He would make less and less appearances for the NYL team as he started playing more of a role within the A-League team, so through reverse osmosis he’d almost vanished from our thinking.

The quiet resignation I’d sensed within Aziz at our meeting was now becoming more obvious. He was now back playing in the state league. In his mind, he had missed his chance when he missed that chance. A far post cross to win the A-League Grand Final in front of 50,000 people that he didn’t know whether to tap home or head home. So, he chested it.

No goal. No title for Victory. No contract. No hope.

Aziz would join us on the camp in Geelong. Every day, he would drive from Meadow Heights in the multicultural heart of Melbourne’s outer suburbs to Geelong – about a three-hour round trip. He would go on camp after camp without the promise of a contract. Not once did he take a backward step. Not once did he ever find an excuse. Not once did we ever doubt that he would become a footballer.

Every session he would remind the coaches of the tenacity, hunger, humility, resilience and talent he had as a footballer. He was a player who could be trusted.

Qualities that would ultimately hold him in good stead to make his starting debut as a left-back against Melbourne Victory in the first ever Melbourne Derby, conquer Turkey, play at a World Cup and earn a move to PSV – one of the world’s most famous football institutions.

I often think of Aziz when we discuss the bottle-neck facing young players.

Its undeniable that Aziz would most likely never have become a professional player without the expansion of the A-League and the birth of Melbourne Heart. Not because he didn’t have the qualities. But because it is almost inconceivable that a non-Victorian team would have taken a punt on an NYL reject when they had an over-supply of fish swimming in their own pond.

It is impossible to know how many careers have been lost or how weakened our national teams may be because we haven’t been able the build the platform we need to service our thousands and thousands of talented young players.

Should expansion – or the development of a second division – be hijacked or compromised by politicking it would be a betrayal. It would be a betrayal of not only a generation of footballers who place their trust in our many footballing institutions, but a betrayal of the mums, dads and volunteers across the country who ask Australia’s children to dream about what might be when they strap on their boots for the first time.