PFA Chief Executive John Didulica discusses the challenges  Australia must overcome if it is to build an effective player development pathway.

Cause and effect is an interesting concept.

In 2015, the highly-regarded CIES Football Observatory noted the following: “there is a highly positive correlation between matches played between 18 and 21 in professional leagues, irrespective of the level, and future career path”.

Complementing this, a study of match minutes played by players under the age of 22 during the 2015/16 football season identified the following:

>> In Serie A, 5% of match minutes were played by players 22 or under, followed by 6% in the EPL and 8% in La Liga;

>> Across UEFA, an average of 11% of match minutes were played by players 22 or under;

>> In the A-League, 15% of match minutes were played by players 22 or under, whilst in the Netherlands the figure was 17% and in Croatia the figure was 26% .

Further, there is a strong correlation between not using younger players and achieving positive on-field results. For example, a list of the top 50 performing clubs in Europe features the top 10 clubs for not using players under 22. Conversely, of those clubs who feature in the top 10 for using players under the age of 22, the best rankings are between 45 and 190.

This data highlights the challenge inherent in building a competition as an entertainment proposition whilst seeking to focus on player development. Whilst it may make sense for Australia to skew the pendulum and align more closely with the development leagues, the game also needs to consider its commercial base – noting that average crowds in Croatia, for example, are less than 2,500.  In some respects, the two objectives are mutually exclusive in the unique Australian context.

This debate is topical now after the Young Socceroos, for the second successive time, failed to qualify for the Under 20 World Cup. This comes on the back of the Olyroos and Joeys also failing to achieve major tournament finals during 2016.

My initial reaction is one of disappointment for the players and support staff. Whilst not necessarily a ticket to a professional career, the Under 20 World Cup is an unforgettable experience for young footballers and their families.

Manchester City full-back Pablo Zabaleta confirmed as much during the week: “people under-estimate this tournament but you can’t understand how important that tournament is at that age. For Argentinian players it is a massive chance to show how good you can be to come to Europe.”

Our first decade in Asia has confirmed the challenge that qualification poses at under age level and exposes the structural deficiencies of the sport in Australia. Our population size, splintered talent pool, user-pay participation model, relatively low capital investment and our sprawling geography conspire to create (not insurmountable) barriers to ongoing success.

At each failure to qualify, the reflex is to blame coaches and technical direction. This is as misguided as it is emotional. Re-discovering consistent success at youth level requires elevating the discussion beyond a match by match debate to deeper considerations.

One of the first questions to contemplate is whether the player development models we implement and player pathways we create overcome the specific structural barriers we face.

One nation which has successfully overcome seemingly inherent barriers to success is Iceland. Like Australia, Iceland cannot simply rely on a numbers game for success. With a population dwarfed by its European neighbours and its Arctic climate hardly conducive to football, Iceland re-engineered its development model. For 16 years they invested in a development system that saw the establishment of a vast network of heated indoor facilities (to nullify climate as a factor) and inverted its small size into a strength by ensuring heightened accessibility to high-quality coaching for all players, with the country now having a ratio of one top coach per 825 Icelanders, compared to England’s one per 11,000 people. A quarter-final berth at Euro 2012 was the reward for having its players playing and training together five days per week eleven months of the year.

The second question is the role of the A-League (and the A-League clubs) in youth development. This question is complex.

Data suggests that a balanced competition with a focus on winning (or survival) which characterises the leading leagues of Europe comes at the expense of top-tier professional opportunities for younger players. Presently, the A-League is trying to service two masters: becoming a show-piece competition and also a development vehicle. It would appear that it cannot be both. Further, the role of A-League clubs throughout the talent pathway is ill-defined and has no consistent application from state to state.

This presents a two-fold challenge for football in Australia.

The first is to design a bespoke Australian model for talent identification and talent management. A model that can overcome the inherent structural barriers and ensure we can continue to be a leader within Asian football at men’s international level.

The second is to create a platform that enables a critical mass of players between the ages of 18 and 21 to develop and compete at an elite level; without compromising the A-League as a compelling football proposition.

Until we can think through solutions to these challenges, qualification for major tournaments will become increasingly difficult.