Are Aussie players victims of the 'physical' tag?

A damning report on the dwindling number of Australians playing in Europe's top leagues paints a sombre picture of our development system.

Australia Tommy Oar Socceroos

The 2006 Socceroos team was drawn entirely from Europe Source: EMPICS Sport

Professional Footballers Australia claimed in a pioneer study that the combined game time of our elite footballers in England's Premier League, Spain's LaLiga, Italy's Serie A, Germany's Bundesliga and France's Ligue 1 is down by about 80 per cent from the heydays of 2005.

The PFA tracked every minute of Australia's 626 professionals between 2002 and 2016 in Europe's major leagues.

"The data supports the view that we are falling behind where we once were, so we need to redefine our approach to the complex area of talent development," PFA chief executive John Didulica said.

"Australia's international competitiveness is under threat."

The findings were released a day before Socceroos defender Milos Degenek, who plays for Yokohama F Marinos in the J.League, revealed that the prevailing perception of Australian football in Japan is basically that of a country that is bigger on physique than on technique and is obsessed with the long ball.

Degenek's comments came a week after disgraced former FIFA president Sepp Blatter declared that Australian players were generally overweight and more suited to rugby than football.

Blatter has raised many eyebrows over the years with his outrageous views that often caught FIFA's hierarchy offside so his latest 'Blatterism' should be treated with the contempt it deserves.

Yet Degenek highlighted a common view abroad that unfortunately has not been dispelled by the general refinement in the Socceroos' playing style in the last decade.

Hence the question: is this negative perception of our style of football stopping prospective buyers from investing in Aussie talent?

The reputation of Australian football changed dramatically through the efforts of true champions like Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Mark Bresciano, Craig Moore, Jason Culina and Tim Cahill, who distinguished themselves at some of Europe's more famous clubs.

The image of a more sophisticated Australian style was further boosted by the Socceroos' highly commendable performance at the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

However, the idea that Aussie players are essentially fierce competitors with a great temperament, a winning mentality and little technique still exists in many quarters.

The reason, I suspect, is because competitiveness and directness are all too often mistaken for physicality and lack of flair.

Fortunately, many European clubs rarely shared this exaggerated view and they have always been happy to enlist Aussie players because, apart from the skill factor, they knew they would get 100 per cent commitment and fighting spirit.

I would like to think that this positive appraisal of the typical Aussie footballer is still intact in the areas where it matters most: at managerial level.

So if that's the case why are there so few Aussie players plying their trade in the big leagues of Europe?

Is it because the playing standard in the 'big five' leagues keeps getting higher, making it harder for Aussies to break through? Or is it because Australia's player conveyor belt is slowing down if not grinding to a halt?

The right answer is hard to find and it probably lies somewhere in between.

Or perhaps Aussie players and their agents, contrary to their Asian counterparts, do not sell themselves hard enough. 

For example, why is Massimo Luongo, who was named best player of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, playing in the Championship not the Premier League? Why is fellow cup winner Matthew Spiranovic playing in China's second division?
Or maybe the PFA's alarming findings can be traced to the demands of the Socceroos team that is on the cusp of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Anyone with ambitions to play for the green and gold knows that - now more than ever - he must play regularly with his club or else he may as well kiss his aspirations goodbye.

Would-be or current Socceroos therefore would rather join weaker clubs in lesser leagues that provide them with a better chance of regular football than aim for the top where their chances of playing every week are likely to be limited.

Also, Australian football in 2005 and 2006 was blessed with a large crop of star players that had come through and reached their peak roughly at the same time.

These things come in cycles in any country and they do not necessarily reflect the effectiveness or otherwise of a development system.

Our game still produces the odd star here and there ... Mat Ryan, Trent Sainsbury, Tom Rogic and Aaron Mooy are prime examples ... so it is not all doom and gloom.

The numbers are down at the moment but the wheel will turn. We just have to be patient.

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4 min read
Published 30 August 2017 at 10:53am
By Philip Micallef