2020 brought with it much distress for all members of society in all corners of the globe. Every dagger that COVID-19 struck into the world appeared to be heightened for fans of the A-League.
Fans remained uncertain about the league’s future due to a messy unbundling process of the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) from Football Australia as well as an extension to Foxtel’s TV deal that merely papered over the league’s broadcasting cracks and significantly reduced the league’s salary cap.
This uncertainty combined with the A-League’s dwindling attendance numbers cast doubts in the minds of even the most committed football fans, who, sought to cling onto the hope provided by Nick D’Agostino’s strike that sent Australia into their first Olympics since 2008.
Football fans subtly clapped their hands after D’Agostino’s winner at the start of 2020 as the Olyroos crawled over the line against Argentina. Yet, when Marco Tilio’s thunderous strike hit the back of the net, a collective cry of jubilation erupted from individuals across all parts of Australia.
The Olyroos’ 2-0 victory over Argentina was plastered on the front and back pages of newspapers across the country. This was not just a win for the Olyroos, but rather, a win for football as a whole in Australia.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the Olyroos’ historic triumph over a footballing powerhouse that has produced arguably the two best players the world has ever seen is that the majority of its key pillars are products of the A-League.
Melbourne City’s Connor Metcalfe capped off a superb A-League season with an imperious performance in midfield as his doggedness and class in midfield willed the Olyroos over the line.
Sydney FC’s Joel King marauded down the left flank and produced a stellar cross for Western United’s Lachie Wales to open the scoring. Nathaniel Atkinson was named Man of the Match in City’s A-League Grand Final victory and fought tirelessly for 90 minutes.
10 of the 15 players to feature for the Olyroos were plying their trade in the A-League last season while defensive powerhouse Thomas Deng, technical maestro Daniel Arzani and robust midfielder Riley McGree are products of Melbourne Victory, City and Adelaide United respectively who now find themselves playing overseas.
Out of the 15 that featured, only Stoke City’s behemoth Harry Souttar and Southampton’s starlet Caleb Watts have not played in Australia’s top flight of professional football.
This is not only a great testament to the A-League’s quality, but it also acts as an indicator of the phenomenal young talent that the league is beginning to produce.
With the league being shrouded in so much uncertainty and antipathy, how did it become like this in such a liminal space of time?
When the Olyroos defeated Uzbekistan to seal their place in Tokyo, few players were consistently playing at A-League level.
Fractured youth pathways combined with the underestimation of young Australian talent resulted in Denis Genreau and the aforementioned Metcalfe biding their team on Melbourne City’s bench and consequently the bench of the Olyroos.
Genreau even found it easier to break into the team of PEC Zwolle in the Netherlands’ famed Eredivisie than Melbourne City.
Come 2021, Metcalfe and Genreau are A-League stars in their own right with Metcalfe starting every available game for Melbourne City in their maiden Premiership season while Genreau started 22 of a possible 23 games for Macarthur FC at the base of their midfield.
Both capped off their strong performances with Socceroos debuts in their recent World Cup Qualifiers.
The growing willingness of A-League clubs to give youth a chance is not a mere coincidence.
It is the result of a meticulously manufactured process headed by the APL who sought to revolutionise development for young Australians under the age of 23.
First came the decision to extend benches in the A-League to allow more young talent to feature in matches, to seven from the pre-existing five.
Then came the drastic slashing of the salary cap courtesy of Foxtel’s reduced broadcasting deal which forced A-League clubs to spend less on foreigners and give more chances to promising youngsters.
The results are quantifiable, the win against Argentina is an illustration of that.
During the 2018/19 season, U23 players accounted for just 19% of the total match minutes played in the A-League, suggesting that clubs were turning a blind eye to youthful exuberance.
This number rose to 22% during the COVID-affected 2019/20 season as uncertainties regarding the virus cut squad numbers and gave opportunities to young Australians.
Now in 2020/21, U23 players account for 28% of total match minutes in the A-League, thus demonstrating the conscious effort taken by the APL and its clubs to develop talent.
The majority of the Olyroos’ starting XI are starring in the A-League and playing consistent minutes while consistent performers Cameron Devlin, Marco Tilio and Keanu Baccus were consigned to roles on the bench despite magnificent seasons in the A-League.
This is a testament to the growing depth being built in the core of Australia’s young talent.
The pandemic may act as a blessing in disguise for the A-League as it unlocked the league’s greatest strength that had been staring at it in plain sight for years.
Thursday night’s victory gave Australians a mere taste of what is to come in the next 10 years as the country looks to build a tilt for glory at the imminent 2022 and 2026 World Cups.
In the immediate future, the Pedri and Dani Olmo-led Spain offers a unique challenge to the Olyroos as they look to guarantee a place in the knockout stage of the Olympics.