Australia’s Asian Cup success in 2015 has been followed by four years of turmoil
The narrow streets and maze of alleys in Hanoi’s Old Quarter make finding a standard taxi near to an impossibility.
After waiting for a couple of minutes I quickly figured it’s far easier to simply jump on a xe om – one of the nation’s ubiquitous motorcycle taxis – to make the 15-kilometre journey to the southern outskirts of the city.
Cutting across the Red River, which rises in southern China and empties into the Gulf of Tonkin another 100km west, we pass the site of a furious struggle between local farmers whose land was reclaimed to build the curiously named Ecopark Township before arriving at the PVF Academy.
I’m greeted by Philippe Troussier, the Frenchman who managed Japan’s Golden Generation at the 2002 World Cup. Aside from walking with a slight limp, he hasn’t aged noticeably in the intervening decade and a half.
Since leaving Japan he’s led a nomadic existence with spells in Qatar, his native France and home base of Morocco as well as two stints in charge of Chinese clubs before being appointed last year to run the academy at the Promotion Fund of Vietnamese Football Talent (PVF).
Jumping off the xe om it’s easy to see why he was attracted to Vietnam.
PVF is home to more than 200 children from the ages of 10 to 17, scouted extensively from the smallest villages to the biggest cities in this nation of almost 100 million.
At a site that sprawls across 22 hectares those children live, study and train in a facility that has six pitches, a mini stadium, an Olympic swimming pool, state-of-the-art gym, recovery and medical facilities as well as hotels, cafes, restaurants and relaxation rooms.
The staff is drawn from specialised youth coaching ranks in both South America and Europe and the children do football-related activities for a minimum of four hours a day – every single day of the week – in addition to competing in national and international tournaments.
That scene is repeated in the south of the country at the Hoang Anh Gia Lai academy (HAGL – it’s named after the rubber company that funds it) and at a string of club sides across the nation where children live and breathe football for upwards of 30 hours a week, more than most professional players across the globe are putting in.
It’s little surprise that Vietnam, flush with a superb generation of technically gifted players, qualified for the Under-20 World Cup in 2017, won the Southeast Asian title in 2018, made the final of the AFC Under-22 Championship in the same year and for good measure marched through to the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup, where it took a second-half penalty from Japan to eliminate them.
It’s also a mystery to precisely nobody who has even the slightest clue as to what’s been unfolding in the nation over the past decade why Qatar then went on to top Japan, smashing them 3-1 in the final to lift the continental trophy for the first time.
If PVF and HAGL in Vietnam are superb regional centres of youth development, the Aspire setup in Qatar is among the global elite.
Setting aside legitimate questions over the recruitment of players from foreign nations there’s no question that the work that began back in 2004 has produced footballers of an exceptional level.
In a nation where there are fewer than half a million Qatari citizens their ascent to the Asian summit has been dramatic but methodically planned and executed.
In addition to seven outdoor pitches, Aspire boasts the world’s largest indoor sports dome and a fleet of world-class medical and development facilities.
Led by some of the world’s leading youth coaches Qatar has starred at youth level in recent years prior to that continental success and has several young players making their way through the youth system at major European clubs.
A similar story is being told in many Asian nations: Japan has 11,000 registered coaches and 80,000 ‘football instructors’ who work at grassroots level up and down the nation; Myanmar has a modern facility in Yangon where elite boys and girls live and train; club sides JDT (in Malaysia) and Buriram (in Thailand) have spent millions on exceptional facilities, coaching and development and are emerging as Asian powers while everywhere from Uzbekistan to Mongolia, Jordan and even tiny Guam have invested heavily in their youth programs.
What Troussier calls a “volcano” that Vietnam is sitting on in terms of potential is one bubbling away in many nations right across the world’s most populous continent.
If there’s one thing that the recently concluded Asian Cup brought into stark relief it’s that the gap between those at the top and the bottom is closing and at rapid pace.
Without understanding the breakneck pace at which the game is growing across Asia it’s hard to contextualise Australia’s fall from being crowned Asian champions in 2015 to a shaky quarter-final exit four years later.
The failure to defend their continental crown came on the back of a disappointing showing six months earlier that saw the Socceroos collect just a single point at last year’s World Cup.
Dig deeper and you’ll find plenty of evidence that with the pace of development across the Asian continent Australia is at real risk of slipping even further.
At the same time that Vietnam, Qatar and others are making major investment in youth development, the Australian federation (FFA) last year took the puzzling decision to close the FFA Centre of Excellence, based at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in the capital Canberra.
The national academy has, for more than two decades, played a pivotal role in the development of the vast majority of elite Australian footballers with Mark Viduka, Lucas Neill, Brett Emerton, Mark Bresciano, Craig Moore, Luke Wilkshire, Vince Grella, Mark Milligan and a host of others all having spent time at the AIS setup.
That closure then forces even greater development work to be undertaken at club level but with the A-League consisting of just ten professional sides (one of which is based in New Zealand), no promotion/relegation and no established nationwide second-tier the system is somewhere between disjointed and fundamentally broken.
With foreign players taking up several spots at those A-League clubs it means that across the entire nation there are roughly 180 Australian professional footballers playing the game – that’s it.
At youth level things are in an even more precarious state, as emerging players have neither the opportunity nor the exposure to a rigorous programme of training and matches.
When the forerunner to the A-League, the National Soccer League, was disbanded amid a government investigation into the game’s governance issues in 2004 so too went the National Youth League that had been running since 1984.
Remarkably, it took a full four years to establish another national youth competition and that young generation which missed close to half a decade of development is precisely the one that should be piloting the Socceroos to success at the moment.
In its current format, though, you have to wonder if it’s even worth the trouble – the recently concluded Y-League saw clubs play a grand total of eight matches each.
Some – but not all – of those teams will also play in various state competitions but the volume of matches and the training load that Australian teenagers experience pales in comparison to those across a majority of the leading Asian nations.
There are numerous issues with the cost of playing the game for Australian children compared to other popular sports that heavily subsidise development programs as well as concerns about the standard of coaching at youth level but the reality remains that there is no substitute for time with the ball and opportunity and exposure to competitive environments.
It’s here that Australia is facing a seminal moment in trying to maintain pace with the rest of the continent.
In the pre A-League era, the Under-17 side qualified for all bar one of the World Cups between 1985 and 2005; in the following decade and a half they’ve done so just twice.
The U20 side hasn’t qualified for any of the previous three World Cups and the Olympic side missed out on qualification for both the London and Rio Games.
Part of that shift can be attributed to the switch from Oceania to Asia back in 2006 but only the ignorant are closing their eyes and thinking that there aren’t fundamental development problems in the game.
It’s an issue not lost on Graham Arnold, the former national striker, who now coaches both the senior and Olympic teams and who has called for the U22 side to be released from their clubs and allowed to spend extensive time in national camps in order to enhance their chances of qualifying for continental and global tournaments.
As much as there are very real problems in development it also hasn’t helped at the pointy end that Arnold was thrust into the job at the Asian Cup as the third coach of the national team in barely twelve months and with a preparation for that tournament that was inadequate.
Just as importantly it was the final spoke in a moving wheel of coaching changes that are less than circular.
Australia won the Asian Cup at home in 2015 under the guidance of the ultra-aggressive Ange Postecoglou who gutted the ageing veterans whom the Socceroos had relied on for more than a decade and managed the remarkable feat of squad regeneration, identity change and success at the same time.
In his first major tournament – the 2014 World Cup – Postecoglou went with a squad that had an average age of barely 26 (one of the lowest at the competition) and gradually introduced more and more players to the national setup with the aim of building towards both the global showpiece in Russia and then the continental one in the UAE.
With a generation of players far less talented than those that had preceded them he played in the “Australian way”, taking the game to the opposition regardless of stature or circumstance and being relentlessly positive and whilst the results didn’t always accord with that vision for the first time in a long time there was an identity about the national side.
Increasingly, though, the internal politics that has divided Australian football for so long began to take its toll on Postecoglou as budget cuts slashed millions of dollars in funding for the national teams at the same time that the Football Federation Australia was being threatened with a ban by Fifa over governance issues.
When word came from head office that style mattered far less than results – with the clear implication being that Australia needed to qualify for the World Cup to keep their financial house in order – that was the final straw for a man who has built his image and reputation on playing some of the most thrilling, attacking football anywhere in Asia.
In November 2017, barely a week after having led the Socceroos to qualification for Russia, he quit as national coach stating that the role had taken a ‘heavy toll’ on him both personally and professionally.
Whilst Postecoglou returned to the club game where he’s currently in charge of the Manchester City-affiliated Yokohama F Marinos in Japan (and playing an exhilarating brand of football) Australia turned to a stop-gap solution in appointing the Dutchman Bert van Marwijk to lead the team in Russia.
From the high octane, attack-at-all-costs, mentality of Postecoglou the team went full circle to being a counter-attacking, defensive side that failed to score from open play in Russia and then to a hybrid of the two approaches under Arnold at the Asian Cup.
Meanwhile, on the domestic front, the dynastic Lowy family that ruled the game for close to two decades – with Frank passing power to his son Steven – was removed and replaced by a board that promised transparency and growth late in 2018.
Those initial shoots of hope were watered with news that two new clubs will join an expanded A-League in coming years but with squabbling over the league becoming truly independent from the FFA and questions about just where funding will come from to promote and grow the game the political scene is far from stable.
Declining crowds and television figures as well as a lack of the kind of marquee international players that China, Japan, Qatar and the UAE have secured in recent years are all casting doubt over just where football fits in a crowded Australian sporting landscape.
Global football often moves in cyclic phases and it can be impulsive to look at results from one international tournament to the next and declare either a state of emergency or a period of hastening dominance. The game in Australia, though, stands at a crossroads.
To one side is a proud history of success with an Asian Cup trophy in the cabinet and qualification for four successive World Cups. On the other is a gathering cloud of dust swept along by a multitude of domestic problems and the gathering footsteps of a mass of ambitious rivals eager to redraw the Asian footballing map.