The Socceroos are inspiring a new generation of junior footballers and the Matildas are set to do the same in 2023 with a home World Cup – but will parents be able to fund the travel of our next national superstar?
The David versus Goliath performance of the Socceroos at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar is well documented and a path to the top from the domestic A-League is now clear to see.
When Melbourne City striker Matthew Leckie hammered home the winner against Denmark, it proved that any Aussie boy could do the same on the world’s biggest stage.
And with Sam Kerr and the Matildas set to take center stage when Australia and New Zealand host the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023, even more juniors are likely to enter the football ranks.
But parents will struggle to help their children’s dreams come true because of the eye-watering fees associated with junior football in Australia – fees that almost forced Socceroos teenage sensation Garang Kuol to quit the sport.
While others such as the NRL and AFL trickle money down from top grades to grassroots level, the A-League broadcast deal means there is little to give back to the junior levels.
Thomas Deng of the Socceroos thanks the fans after an international friendly between the New Zealand All Whites and the Australia Socceroos
In powerhouse nations, the big clubs can pick and choose young players they identify with potential and finance them from junior to the top.
Socceroos coach Graham Arnold called for a thorough review of Australia’s football pitches this week.
He revealed his struggles as he searched for the next crop of players to replace the likes of retired stars Tim Cahill, Mile Jedinak, Mark Milligan and Robbie Kruse.
“When I started looking, nothing came through,” he said.
Socceroos coach Graham Arnold has called for a review of junior development in Australian rules football
In Australia, places in training programs set up by A-League clubs require parents to pay. Often it’s the parent with the deepest pockets, not the kid with the most abilities, who wins.
At the higher end, Sydney FC run the Sydney FC Academy which provides “opportunities for selected talented players to train under the Sydney FC Youth philosophy”, and players must be selected to participate.
But with a $1,500 price tag to participate, many talented young players can slip through the cracks because families simply can’t afford it.
The real problems for the Socceroos going forward will come in the National Premier League [NPL] level, the second team competition under the A-League where the brightest teenagers are selected to develop their game.
The NPL Youth competition has eye-catching fees that average around $2,500 per season, some clubs charge slightly less, some charge more.
They are fees that many families cannot afford and almost meant Socceroos star Garang Kuol – who has 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 had to be made where the Kuol family washed team jerseys in exchange for fees.
Kuol and his parents celebrate his ascension to the Socceroos. Their family had to wash team jerseys just 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 the contribution, the family would wash all our junior kits as a kind of payment and as part of our football community at our club,” said Carley to the Herald Sun.
And that’s one thing that really gets me about football in Australia is the fact that it’s so expensive to play.
“We could have lost kids like Garang and Alou from the system completely if they were to be at another NPL club and couldn’t afford the fees.
“I don’t think they would be doing this sport the way they are now.”
Kuol is a teenage star who has already represented his country and has been given a contract to play in the English Premier League
According to Football Australia chief executive James Johnson Johnson, club registration fees for grassroots football were “on the whole quite reasonable”, but he recognized there were challenges at NPL level.
“These costs increased significantly from about 2013 and they are too high,” Johnson told The Age.
“And we are aware of that and we will address it. State subsidies help, but it will require more, it will require a package of measures.’
In Queensland, playing football is relatively less expensive than other states with an average annual cost of $459.90, largely due to the code having the highest participation rates in the state.
Australia players enter the pitch with escort children before the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group D match between France and Australia
President of the Logan Metro Football Club, Sam Escobar, said while money was not coming from the Socceroos and the A-League, better governance and community-driven clubs like Logan Metro helped make it affordable.
“So despite football being the biggest club-based participant sport in the country – the broadcast money is not enough to filter down to the grassroots,” he told the Courier Mail earlier this year.
“The game has suffered from poor 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 page and playing our part have meant we’re starting to see some hope for real results and changes.’
“Clubs like ours still offer good coaches, programs, facilities and are less expensive than the elite track that produces the same result of top-tier clubs, and of course still make sure that kids who just want to play sport for enjoyment and not necessarily chasing a development path.’
Sam Kerr of Australia poses for photos with fans after winning the women’s friendly soccer match between Australia and Thailand in Gosford
The Darebin Falcons are an all women’s football club in Melbourne’s north that draws in a capacity almost every week.
Falcons volunteer official Jasmine Hurst said the 2023 World Cup was likely to increase player and attendance numbers again and there would need to be more funding to support it, otherwise their best coaches and staff would leave for the NPL.
“There has been a steady increase every year,” 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 appropriate qualifications and the facilities are much better.
“Our pitch is extremely muddy and horrendous in the winter and is simply not conducive to good football.”
It means that without funding, only the rich will make it to elite level, and potential Socceroos and Matildas could be lost to the sport forever.