The Socceroos are inspiring a new generation of youth footballers and the Matildas will do the same in 2023 with a World Cup at home – but will parents be able to afford to fund the journey of our next national superstar?
The Socceroos’ David versus Goliath performance at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar is well documented and a path to the top from the domestic A-League is now clearly visible.
When Melbourne City striker Mathew Leckie clinched the winner against Denmark, it proved that any Aussie kid could do the same on the world’s biggest stage.
Leckie celebrates his goal against Denmark, which ultimately secured Australia to the second knockout stage of a World Cup
And with Sam Kerr and the Matildas taking center stage when Australia and New Zealand host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, even more juniors are likely to enter the football rankings.
But parents will struggle to make their children’s dreams come true because of the eye-watering sums associated with youth football in Australia – fees that almost made Socceroos teen sensation Garang Kuol quit the sport.
While others like the NRL and AFL trickle money from the top ranks to the grassroots level, the A-League’s broadcasting deal means there’s little to give back to the juniors.
The Socceroos’ Thomas Deng thanks fans after an international friendly between the New Zealand All Whites and Australia Socceroos
In powerhouse countries, the big clubs can pick and choose young players they identify with potential and fund them from juniors to the top.
Socceroos coach Graham Arnold this week called for a major overhaul of Australian soccer routes.
He revealed his struggles as he searches for the next crop of players to replace retired stars Tim Cahill, Mile Jedinak, Mark Milligan and Robbie Kruse, among others.
“When I started looking, nothing came through,” he said.
Socceroos coach Graham Arnold has called for an overhaul of junior development in Australian football
In Australia, parents have to pay for places in training programs set up by A-League clubs. Often it is the parent with the deepest wallet, not the child with the most skills, who comes out on top.
On the senior side, Sydney FC runs the Sydney FC Academy which provides “opportunities for selected talented players to train according to the Sydney FC Youth philosophy” and players must be selected to participate.
However, with a $1500 price tag to enter, many talented young players can slip through the cracks because families simply can’t afford it.
The real problems for the Socceroos moving forward come in the National Premier League [NPL] level, the second tier league below the A-League where the brightest teens are chosen to develop their game.
The NPL Youth league has eye-watering fees that average around $2500 per season, with some clubs charging a little less, others more.
It’s fees many families can’t afford and almost meant Socceroos star Garang Kuol – who also signed for Newcastle in the English Premier League – was lost to the sport.
Goulburn Valley Suns coach Craig Carley was the man who developed both Garang and his brother Alou, who signed with German club VfB Stuttgart II.
He said a deal should be made whereby the Kuol family washed team jerseys in exchange for allowances.
Kuol and his parents celebrate his ascension to the Socceroos. Their family had to wash team jerseys for him to play for an NPL club to reach that level
“One of the unique things about where we are here, the family couldn’t afford the NPL fees and as part of a contribution, the family washed all our junior kits as a kind of payment and as part of our football community at our club,” Carley shared to the Announce sun.
“And that’s one thing that really bugs me about football in Australia, and that’s the fact that it’s so expensive to play.
“We could have lost kids like Garang and Alou completely out of the system if they were with another NPL club and couldn’t afford the fees.
“I don’t think they would play this sport that they do now.”
Kuol is a teenage star who has already represented his country and earned a contract to play in the English Premier League
According to Football Australia chief James Johnson Johnson, club registration fees for community football were ‘generally quite reasonable’, but he acknowledged there were challenges at the NPL level.
“These costs have gone up significantly from about 2013 and they are too high,” Johnson told me The age.
“And we are aware of that, and we will address it. Government subsidies do help, but it takes more, it takes a package of measures.’
In Queensland, playing soccer is relatively more affordable than other states with an average annual cost of $459.90, largely due to the code having the highest participation rates in the state.
Australian players walk onto the pitch with escorted children ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group D match between France and Australia
Logan Metro Football Club chairman Sam Escobar said that while no money was coming in from the Socceroos and the A-League, better governance and community-run clubs like Logan Metro helped make it affordable.
“So despite football being the biggest club sport in the country, the broadcasting money is not enough to filter all the way down to the base,” he told the Courier Mail earlier this year.
“The game has suffered from bad decisions, leadership, governance and individual agendas in recent history, but changes led nationally by Football Australia, locally by Football Queensland, local clubs getting on the same wavelength and playing our part have meant that we are starting to see some hope of real results and change.’
“Clubs like ours still offer great coaches, programs, facilities and are cheaper than the elite route that get the same result as top clubs and of course still cater to kids who just want to play sports for enjoyment and not necessarily the developmental route.”
Australia’s Sam Kerr poses for photos with fans after winning the women’s-friendly football match between Australia and Thailand in Gosford
Darebin Falcons is a women’s only community football club based in Melbourne’s north that draws a packed house almost every week.
Falcons volunteer Jasmine Hurst said the 2023 World Cup was likely to boost player and spectator numbers again and that more money was needed to support it or their best coaches and staff would leave for the NPL.
“Every year there is a steady increase,” she says. “With the Women’s World Cup next year, we expect even more growth there,” she told The Age.
‘[The NPL] is a higher standard of competition, the coaches are paid with the right qualifications and the facilities are a lot better.
“Our pitch is extremely muddy and horrible in winter and just not conducive to good football.”
Which means that without funding only the wealthy reach the elite level and potential Socceroos and Matildas could be lost to the sport forever.