PFA Chief Executive John Didulica discusses the importance of international youth football to the broader and connected narrative of Australian football.

The journey of a player through the junior national teams is one of Australian football’s most compelling stories.

My formative years in football were shaped by navigating this nexus. Seeing Paul Okon gallop past Rui Costa in Portugal in 1991 and then getting to watch his match at Olympic Park or Somers Street playing for Marconi.

We could watch players like Steve Corica and Ante Milicic and Brad Maloney carve out a playing style, mature, build as a character, form an identity, then reach major milestones.

Equally, I was introduced to the unicorn that was Mark Bosnich. The kid who had left Australia years earlier for Manchester United was real and we could watch him play before tracking his career for the next decade.

I didn’t have to wait for his name to one day appear in the Socceroos line-up before knowing everything I seemingly needed to know.

In this context, the Young Socceroos’ qualification for the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland next year is crucial.

Not only does it build the profile and experience of these players, it allows hundreds and thousands of fans to connect to the richness of the journey that builds bonds between player, team and fan.

If the team qualifies, our players will have a global platform to showcase their skills, emerge as prospects for the senior national team, and for fans to build a connection with our potential stars of the future.

If we fail, these players are inevitably lost to our consciousness.

More often than not, these under 20 tournaments awaken us, for the first time, to the future greats of our game; or to those that we predict might one day become so, but fall short amid the uncertainty of professional football.

For generations, Australian football fans were introduced to their Socceroos heroes of the future through the under 20s.

During the 1990s, in addition to the likes of Bosnich, Okon and Corica, we were introduced for the first time to names such as Popovic, Kalac, Muscat, Moore and Paul Agostino. Later, it would be Viduka, Skoko, Grella and Kosta Salapasidis (who could forget his four goals against Argentina).

My most vivid memories of these players often still rest in their heroics during these tournaments, notwithstanding the incredible careers they would go on to enjoy.

Allowing these players to take centre-stage against the best nations in world football helps us learn about not only our own players, but the calibre of our teams and the mythology that underpins the “next Messi”.

Failing to qualify for these international tournaments mean we lose the opportunity to build foundational links with these players and for the game to build a connection with the next generation of stars.

Failure to qualify can see these players disperse, their careers become difficult to track and their context and journeys lost.

Not only is it critical that players and coaches go on this wonderful journey. But it is critical that football lovers within Australia can stand witness to it.