After making a promising start to their Olympic campaign with a historic win over Argentina and a narrow loss to a Spain squad laden with Euros veterans, supporters and pundits alike were left disappointed as they watched Graham Arnold’s young side fail to make it out of a challenging Group C.
Despite their early exit, the young squad will have gained invaluable experience playing on the Olympic stage says Luke Casserly.
The former Head of National Performance at Football Australia experienced Olympic campaigns first hand as both a player and an executive, and joined Kick360 to share his thoughts on the selection process and important role youth tournaments play in the development of young Australian players.
“There’s loads of things [taken in to consideration]” says Casserly, who during his time with Football Australia worked very closely with National Team Coaches in squad selection.
“The Olympics is an interesting one because they opened it up to 22 players. That was a really late decision, and the squad was already selected. Initially you could only have the 18 players, so we needed to have those players who can play across a few different positions.”
It was a situation he had benefited from in his own playing days.
“That’s how and why I was selected to go to the Olympics in 1996. We had a very good team but when Eddie Thompson was asked, he went through every single player and said why they were selected, so people like Mark Viduka, his words were he was pound for pound the best centre forward in the world for his age.
“When he spoke about me he said I was ‘Mr. Fix-It’, anywhere in the back line, anywhere in midfield he can do a job for us.’ When you only have 18 players, you need some players that have that versatility, that can cover two or three positions. That’s why I was selected for the Atlanta team, and fortunately for me I had a good pre-camp and ended up playing all the games.”
There were a few question marks surrounding Graham Arnold’s selections for the campaign in Tokyo, with many fans and pundits pondering the decision to only take one experienced over-age player.
However, Casserly believes that platform that a tournament like the Olympics provides for young players to prove their worth on the global stage, and the resulting opportunities that often follow, would have factored heavily in to Arnold’s selection process.
“You can hear by the way that he speaks, that he has an enormous belief in our young players.
“For so many of our players, there were the odd case where Cahill and Kewell went over on their own early, but almost everybody else who went to Europe were signed because of their performances at youth internationals; youth World Cups, Joeys World Cups, U20s World Cups, Olympic Games… That’s how they got their moves to Europe, not because they were doing well playing in the NSL as a right full back.
“When those players are playing in Europe, they’re playing in high level matches every week they continue to improve and it helps our national team, so I would have no doubt whatsoever, that a big part of Arnie’s idea and his plan [in selection] was to expose as many of these young players to the international stage, expose them to scouts and expose them to European clubs. Showing we are as good at this level as the Argentinian players which will help get our players moves to Europe and that in turn will help the Socceroos.”
A few of the current crop of young players caught the former Olympian’s eye in Tokyo.
“Certainly from this tournament, Atkinson has showed that [he’s ready]. Riley McGree has had the talent for a long time and people are seeing that on the international stage now and, Denis Genreau has continued his form from the A League, Connor Metcalfe is one that’s interesting.
“I saw him as a youngster at the NTC Challenge when he was half the size of everybody else. He was a late developer, so hats off to Melbourne City for believing in him and taking the time with him.
“I think a lot of people would have said you’re too small, you’re not strong enough and all that sort of stuff when he was younger, but they knew biologically, he was a few years behind everybody else in his biological maturation so they’ve given him the time and he’s now 6ft plus and a great physique and is turning out to be a fantastic footballer.”
“They’re probably the pick of this crew who are ready to kick on given the likes of Souttar and Deng are established first team footballers in good leagues.”
Those four players represent the tip of the iceberg in a thriving group of young Aussies plying their trade domestically and overseas.
“There’s plenty of talent around.
“Caleb Watts is very young at this Olympics. Ortiz is in Portugal now, Hammond has recently moved from Sporting Lisbon to Austria Vienna, Noah Botić is on his way back and has a really bright future there. Teague is in Portugal, Cameron Peupion is with Brighton. You see when these boys are playing at tournaments like the U17 & U20s World Cup, you can see what an impact that has on the whole cohort, the whole age group.
“Producing talent has never been a problem for us, of course we can always improve, we are far from perfect and can always do things better but it’s giving young players the opportunities to play senior football that has the biggest impact and is where we are behind many nations. When we had a 10-team A-League, nine teams in Australia each with five foreigners opportunities were so limited… we played in the World Cup in 2018 and there was a lot of media talk around our inability to score goals, but then you look at the A-League that particular season, basically every number nine in the A-League was a foreigner. How do you expect our national team to have goal-scorers if our strikers never get an opportunity to play?
“In my time at FFA we really struggled with the view from clubs that our young players weren’t good enough and how they wanted to increase the foreign quota from five to seven. We had such belief in the talent that we saw in our junior National Teams, we were very confident the kids were good enough, they just needed the opportunity to play but the constant rhetoric from club land was our players aren’t good enough, we need the foreigners to excite the fans…
“When Arzani hit the scene, that’s the impact. Australians will get so much more excited about someone like Arzani because he’s our player, he’s one of us, he has a great story, not a foreign player battling to make the starting team here. I understand the need and place for quality foreigners but quality is the key.”
Expansion, in the form of more A-League teams or the touted second division, will only boost the creation and development of homegrown playing and coaching talent.
“If we expand the league, another two teams means another 40 Australians that get opportunities, and another half a dozen Australian coaches that get opportunities.
“There’s always talk of a national second division, from a football perspective, for all of those reasons, it is imperative. The million dollar question is how do we make that financially viable, and that’s the one no-one seems to be able to answer.
“[We need] more opportunities for Australian players to show they’re good enough.
“It’s good for everybody. It’s good for the clubs, it’s good for fan engagement and it’s certainly good for the future of our national teams.
“Most places in the world, the best young players are developed by the professional clubs. For the clubs that invest in their youth academies and their youth players, Melbourne City are seeing some of the reward for that now, when these players come through in to the first team they don’t cost as much as buying in and relocating a player from somewhere else, so they get that financial benefit and then of course, they get an additional benefit if they get to sell those on overseas is absolutely the way to go.”