Business decisions hurting the Socceroos

Young Australians are heading overseas in droves, but by electing to play for some large clubs and then not actually playing, they are harming their careers.

As a track-suited Mitch Langerak made his way up the famous Wembley steps to collect his UEFA Champions League runners-up medal, there was a mixture of pride and apprehension. Pride that the kid from Bundaberg was part of club football’s showpiece occasion. Apprehension that the chances of him getting rid of the tracksuit and become a regular starter for Borussia Dortmund are, at this point, no closer than they were when he joined the Bundesliga aristocrats three years ago.

Sadly, it’s an all-too familiar story – a disturbing trend as the Socceroos gather in Tokyo to prepare for the World Cup qualifier against Japan. In the sense of being a fringe player at his overseas club, Langerak is by no means alone.

In fact it’s a fate he shares with far too many of those expatriates called up by Holger Osieck for the business end of the World Cup campaign. The contrast with a Japanese side laden with Bundesliga regulars and including Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa could not be more pronounced. In Europe, the stock of Japanese players seems to be rising as fast as that of Australians is falling.

Of course football moves in cycles, and it didn’t seem that long ago when the we suffered little in comparison. The first wave of Australian imports to Europe – the likes of Eddie Krncevic, David Mitchell, Frank Farina, Graham Arnold and Robbie Slater – did as well, in relative terms, as Japanese pioneers such as Yasuhiko Okudera, Kazuo Ozaki, Hidetoshi Nakata and Junicho Inamoto.

Yet while the Japanese game has built of these foundations, our game has wasted them. If you’re looking for a key reason why our World Cup campaign is in such a fragile state here it is. In fact there’s a compelling argument that until we can rebuild our reputation, our players are far better off staying at home.

I’ve never bought into the view that the reason the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ has lasted so long in the green and gold is because there is nothing to take it’s place. We continue to produce good players, and some potentially great ones. The trouble is way too many of the emerging generation have struggled, or failed, to properly manage their careers.

In my view, some of their agents are at least partly culpable. Do we really need 30 registered agents – and possibly the same number of unregistered ones – for about 190 professional players (if you remove the imports)? I don’t think so.

With such a thin profit margin, too often there’s been a hint of desperation about some of our more recent transfers. And that’s the worst possible starting point for a player hoping to forge an overseas career.

It’s not just agents who are eager to cash in, of course. It’s also those Hyundai A-League clubs who are looking to dilute some of the red ink. And, last but not least, there’s an entrenched culture among players that playing abroad is the only benchmark which matters.

Having our own professional competition and properly capitalising it – as opposed to the financially vulnerable, semi-pro, NSL – should start changing that. Hopefully, sooner rather than later. Is Langerak, for instance, a better goalkeeper than Eugene Galekovic, simply because he’s employed by Borussia Dortmund rather than Adelaide United? Not unless he starts playing regular first team football would be my view.

Unfortunately, there are far too many more worrying examples. Five years ago, Nathan Burns looked, to me, like our most complete attacking player since Mark Viduka. Since then he’s disappeared off the face of the earth. He can’t even get a regular start at Incheon United. The damage to his development may already be terminal.

What about these other NextGen players, for example? Brent McGrath, James Troisi, Nikita Rukavytsya, Matthew Leckie, Kerem Bulut, Brendan Hamill, Jason Davidson and Mustafa Amini. The latter struggles to even get a game with Borussia Dortmund’s reserve team. None of them are in the latest Socceroos squad. If they had planned their careers differently, who knows, they could have been. It gets worse. Michael Zullo, Brett Holman, and Tom Rogic did make Osieck’s cut, but they – too – are far from regular starters at club level. Our captain, Lucas Neill, is struggling to find a club at all.

Market forces being what they are, you can’t legislate to change what’s occuring. What you can do is educate, and in that regard Craig Moore – who has been appointed by the FFA to advise players on these matters – has arguably the toughest gig in the game.

This is what I do know. The Hyundai A-League – just like the J-League – now offers players a level, on and off the field, which over the long term can provide a backbone for the rejuvenation of our national team.

Players will always chase fame, and fortune, and there’s nothing wrong with ambition. But if being the best footballer they can be is the objective, then it’s time to question the lemming-like rush to play abroad. Only the very best should depart, and even then the timing is crucial. This is why the Socceroos are suffering. The evidence is overwhelming.