Aus Football Review
Last update: December 19, 2006, at 02:47 PM
(c) 2007 ausfootballreview
Bring On The Young Blood
Considerable praise was heaped upon Australia's younger and more inexperienced players by coach Graham Arnold after his injury-hit team drew with Ghana in London on November 14. Indeed, there were some promising signs from a number of the "newer" players on show.
Central defenders Patrick Kisnorbo and Michael Thwaite were not completely faultless but did enough of positive note to be contenders to replace the recently retired Tony Popovic and Tony Vidmar in the full-strength squad. Central midfielder Luke Wilkshire, meanwhile, continued his steady progress at national team level and Brett Holman had yet another assertive (if somewhat unpolished) performance in attack. In addition, with the forthcoming Asian Cup in mind, a particularly encouraging aspect to the result and impressive performance was that a similarly strong Ghanaian team - including main men Stephen Appiah, Michael Essien, Asamoah Gyan and Sulley Muntari - defeated South Korea and Japan on each of the Asians' respective home grounds in October.
With World Cup squad members Tim Cahill, Josh Kennedy, Harry Kewell, Lucas Neill, Josip Skoko, Mark Viduka and fringe players Ahmed Elrich and Scott Mc Donald out through injury, Arnold was forced to make several unexpected squad selections for the friendly. Indeed, the call-up of the Norway-based 29-year-old Kasey Wehrman after a five year national team absence seemed a desperate selection. But another factor that limited Arnold's options was the unavailability of A-League players. Those based in Australia were, sensibly, not considered for a friendly on the other side of the planet a few days in-between A-League rounds.
At present, the A-League possesses two players who were part of the World Cup squad in Germany and have not since retired from international football in Mark Milligan and Archie Thompson. Both would almost certainly have been selected had they been available, and there may well have been others; one of them being, quite possibly, Nathan Burns, and his participation would have, at 18 years and 6 months of age, made him youngest Australian player to make his senior national team debut since Harry Kewell 10 years ago (a particularly significant milestone, but more on that later).
Burns has made a magnificent start to his senior career at Adelaide United this season. In his first four starts, the young striker scored three goals, played an impressive creative role in the lead-up to three others and already looks an expert attacking talent, such is his confidence, composure and intelligence. Recently, he has been forced on to the bench or, ineffectively, the right wing by the arrival of Romario as a guest player, but his positive showings when replacing Romario up front late on against the Central Coast Mariners and New Zealand Knights, and in a more central attacking role behind Romario against the Newcastle Jets, suggests his earlier form wasn't an aberration.
Significantly, Arnold has taken particular notice. "We're one of the few national teams that doesn't have a lot of young players in the squad, and I want to change that," said the current Australia coach recently. "You look at someone like Nathan Burns; I've watched him play for Adelaide United, and he's been very impressive."
"The thing is, we've got Mark Viduka and John Aloisi both over 30, and Josh Kennedy's got to come back from a very serious injury. Attacking wise, we need to find new players... International football is another level altogether; some players relish that, some players don't handle the pressure. But for those that can take the opportunities, there's definitely going to be chances with both the Olyroos and the Socceroos."
Arnold's mention of the Olyroos is well considered with the upcoming schedules of the senior and under-23 national teams in mind. There are no FIFA international windows in December and January, so the Socceroos will be in recess for the next two months. Their next match is a friendly against Denmark in London on February 6 2007, but it comes a day before Burns will play for the Australian under-23 team in an AFC Olympic Games qualifier, not to mention the fact that it is another midweek European date in-between weekend A-League rounds. The following FIFA international window is in late March; free of A-League fixtures, but the under-23 team will again require Burns at this time for Olympic Games qualifying.
By this time, Burns will be 18 years and 10 months of age and a Socceroo cap in this international window would make him the third youngest national team debutant since Kewell. The Adelaide striker's senior team opportunities will only come, at the earliest, in the mid-year period of late May, June and July in which Australia are likely to play a number of friendlies to prepare for the Asian Cup and only one Olympic qualifier (on June 6th) takes place.
It's a pity, then, that A-League players could not be selected for the friendly against Ghana, or that last month's two-match home series, for which several A-League players were selected along with the available European-based regulars, could not take place later in the month. The squad for the October 7 friendly against Paraguay and the October 11 Asian Cup qualifier against Bahrain was announced prior to October 2 - the day Burns made his starting debut for Adelaide and scored his first goal before continuing to have such a positive impact for the rest of the month.
Had the October international window taken place just two or three weeks later it's quite possible that Burns would have been selected considering the unavailability of strikers Kennedy and Viduka, Arnold's wish to bring in new players, his appraisal of the youngster and the competition among local strikers. Burns' efforts up front in October were only matched by Melbourne Victory's front pairing of Danny Allsopp and Thompson; the former being 28-years-old and uncapped at senior international level, the latter being played on the left wing against Paraguay and Bahrain.
Nevertheless, there are two things that makes the realistic prospect of Burns' teenage debut so significant.
Firstly, providing Burns makes his first appearance for the Socceroos before his twentieth birthday, he will join an interesting group of Socceroos. Of the 11 players to first play for Australia in their teens since 1990 (see table on right), all but four have gone on to have meaningful national team careers as first team regulars for at least several years, while Zeljko Kalac was an ever-present member of the full strength squad for over a decade. Of the rest, Nick Rizzo and Simon Colosimo's promising talents were not out of place with that of others on this list, but both players have sadly been unable to recover from serious injury problems and unwise club moves. The career of Kristian Sarkies, meanwhile, is still in its infancy. Generally, it's been a very good omen for an Australian player (and indeed the national team) for them to be capped in their teens over the last 16 years.
Secondly, while the dates of the debuts are well spread throughout the 1990s, only one of these 11 (Sarkies, who was, let it be said, only given a cap as part of a development process during the 2006 World Cup campaign) has made their debut in this decade. So too has there been a general lack of young players in the national team's first eleven (when it has resembled something close to a full-strength starting eleven, that is). Marco Bresciano, at 23 years old, was perhaps the youngest player to have cemented his place as a starting Socceroo in recent years with his impressive performances for Australia and Parma in the 2003-2004 season. Other "new" players who have forced their way regularly into the full-strength national team squad in recent years, such as Tim Cahill, Jason Culina, Ahmed Elrich, Vince Grella and Luke Wilkshire, have only done so being well into their 20s. One would have to look back to a 21-year-old Brett Emerton in 2000 to find the last Australian to become a first-choice starting Socceroo in their early 20s.
Despite the many opportunities for lower tier players in the Socceroos due to poor national team scheduling regularly making the first-choice players unavailable, there simply have not been any teenagers, or even those in their early 20s, who have been up to the calling until recently. Or perhaps it is fairer to say they have not been able to be up to the calling. The delayed development of senior Australian players is unsurprising considering the demise in standard of the National Soccer League, particularly accelerated since the turn of the millennium, and then its end in 2004 resulting in a season without national league football.
If not Sarkies recent debut, then a more meaningful one (surely inevitable, providing he keeps up his form) to Nathan Burns in the next 18 months would seem to buck a worrying trend for Australian football. Let's hope the improved pace, professionalism and standard of the A-League goes on to make up for substandard development processes in the first half of this decade.
- Shane Davis
18 December 2006
19 December 2006