Graham Arnold warned us. A few days before his first press conference as Socceroos coach, way back in 2018, he stuck his head into an under-16s training camp and was astounded by the level of talent on display, bubbling beneath the surface of the senior men’s national team.
“I saw stuff I’ve not seen in Australian football,” he said. “The kids are coming.”
Alex Robertson, Nestory Irankunda and Jordan Bos could be the future of the Socceroos.Credit:Football Australia
Five years later, finally, they’re starting to emerge. It might even be worth getting a little excited about what these raw materials could mean for the future of the Socceroos.
Australia’s friendly series against Ecuador, which kicks off on Friday night at CommBank Stadium, is being billed as a grand homecoming for the team that defied the odds and produced the nation’s best-ever World Cup campaign. But the players aren’t interested in looking back. They’re all treating it as the start of a new World Cup cycle, a chance to meet the new standards they set for themselves in Qatar.
In any case, history may well remember this window not as a celebration, but as a pivotal step in the evolution of the Socceroos – the moment when the long-promised next crop was infused with Arnold’s record-breaking incumbents, and magic ensued.
The cupboard has looked pretty bare at times over the last 10 or so years. Not anymore.
Graham Arnold told us the kids were coming. Now they’re starting to emerge.Credit:Getty
For example: it is a long, long time since a talent as explosive as Nestory Irankunda, 17, has emerged in Australia. Originally called up as a train-on player, he is now in the Socceroos’ squad proper, with Riley McGree ruled out of Friday’s match with illness. If he gets on the park, Irankunda will become the youngest Socceroo ever – and if he ever reaches his full potential, people who didn’t bother to get tickets will one day pretend like they were there for his debut. He could be that good.
Alex Robertson, 18, is in line to become a third-generation Socceroo. He trains week-in, week-out with Manchester City’s first team, and while he’s yet to play for them, Pep Guardiola rates him very highly. That’s usually a good sign. Arnold already sees a midfielder whose calmness belies his tender years, similar in style to Kevin de Bruyne, who has taken him under his wing.
Jordan Bos, 20, has all the makings of a long-term left-back for Australia, likened already to a young Scott Chipperfield by Arnold, who was reluctant to make such a comparison but could find no other way to adequately describe him.
They join Garang Kuol, 18, who was named as one of the world’s top 50 wonderkids this week by Goal.com, and all the Socceroos in the current squad, many of whom are in their early to mid-20s like Harry Souttar, Kye Rowles and McGree, and are only just getting started.
Alex Robertson at Socceroos training this week.Credit:Football Australia
Then there are the under-23s currently in camp in Italy, the juniors grinding away at clubs in the A-League or in Europe, and the likes of Cristian Volpato, Alessandro Circati and Noa Skoko, who are with other nations but will soon find themselves being seduced, like Robertson was, by Arnold’s Socceroos siren song.
Draw up your own depth charts; it’s a fun exercise, and now’s the time to do it, before the pressure of the Asian Cup and World Cup qualification bears down in the coming months and darkens the outlook.
It’s worth noting that many of the above names are a long way from established players at the top level, and have a lot of work to do. This being Australian soccer, of course, plenty of things can go wrong: Bos, for instance, was part of that under-16s camp five years ago that blew Arnold’s mind, but so many of the others who were there seem to have fallen off the face of the earth.
But what we have here is a collection of eligible players who have objectively very high ceilings. Some could potentially be world-class. It does not mean they are now, or will be ever, but it has been a while since there have been this many Australian youngsters who could be categorised in that way.
The ‘golden generation’ made it into the round of 16 at the World Cup in 2006.Credit:Getty
The pathway from the grassroots to the Socceroos is pockmarked by potholes, questionable coaching, ridiculous registration fees, profiteering predators and the usual political speedbumps you just don’t see in other sports. If you give Arnold half a chance, he will tell you how Australian kids don’t play enough football, how the A-League season isn’t long enough, how the junior national teams need more support, and how important a national ‘home of football’ is to the bigger picture – and he’s right. And yes, some players have developed in spite of the ‘system’, or entirely outside of it. But surely, something must be going right somewhere.
Arnold already claimed a new “golden generation” had arrived at the World Cup, and that was without accounting for the talent coming through like Irankunda, Robertson, Bos et al. The last one – the 2006 class of Viduka, Kewell, Cahill and the rest – was a product of its time, a reflection of Australia’s migration patterns, and was forged due to a set of unique circumstances that no longer exist.
This next generation is the first to have come through their whole junior careers under Football Australia’s contentious national curriculum, which, for all its knockers, seems to be working.
This sport is huge here. It’s the A-League which remains frustratingly off-Broadway, and probably always will be – but the beautiful game itself has been, for a while now, the most played in the country. Not so long ago, in the pre-internet era, you had to buy English magazines or watch SBS on Sunday mornings for a glimpse of overseas football. Now the Premier League rights sell for $600 million, highlights are on every TV bulletin and all over social media, and practically any piece of content from anywhere in the world that a young obsessive could hope to immerse themselves in is only an iPhone swipe away.
Together with the professional clubs on their doorsteps and a national team with a demonstrated capacity to inspire, it has created an immersive environment for wannabe players. Imperfect, sure, and broken in so many facets, but clearly for some, fertile enough.
The challenge, as ever in Australia, is to not burden them with the weight of expectation, to resist the urge to pin the sport’s broader hopes on their diminutive shoulders, and just let them be.
That, and making sure their precocious talents are appropriately nurtured. That’s mostly up to them, and the choices they make.
“We have a right to be excited,” Arnold said on Thursday, with a caveat: the most critical part comes next, at club level, where they must play as many first-team minutes as possible, at the highest attainable level, between the ages of 18 and 23.
“If you get through that well, then you’ll reach great heights.” Fingers crossed.
PROJECTED STARTING XIs
AUSTRALIA (4-2-2-2): Ryan; Degenek, Souttar, Rowles, Behich; Baccus, Irvine; Metcalfe, Goodwin; Borrello, Duke.
ECUADOR (4-4-1-1): Galíndez; Preciado, Torres, Hincapié, Estupiñán; Caicedo Méndez, Mena, Sarmiento; Sornoza; Estrada.
Catley’s World Cup in doubt due to mystery foot injury
Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson says it’s too early to say whether Steph Catley’s mystery foot problem could affect her involvement in the Women’s World Cup after the experienced left-back was ruled out of next month’s friendlies in London.
Catley was in a moon boot after suffering what Gustavsson said was a non-contact foot injury while on club duty for Arsenal in a 3-1 win over Sam Kerr’s Chelsea earlier in March.
The 29-year-old hasn’t played since, and looks set to miss a crucial period of the FA Women’s Super League season for the Gunners, as well as Australia’s forthcoming friendlies against Scotland (April 7) and England (April 11).
Steph Catley has been sidelined with a mystery foot injury.Credit:Getty
Gustavsson was reluctant to provide any further detail over Catley’s injury, which he claimed was at Arsenal’s discretion to disclose, but said it was too early to speculate what it could mean for the experienced defender’s chances of playing at the Women’s World Cup.
“She’s actually going to come in and see our [medical] team in London when we’re there, but she’s definitely not available for the April camp and maybe some weeks after that as well,” he said.
“When it comes to the World Cup, it’s too early now to comment – we’re just focused on the April camp now and then we’ll take it from there.”
Attacker Emily Gielnik is also nursing an ankle sprain, but there is better news on the injury front for the Matildas, with right-back Ellie Carpenter and forward Holly McNamara named for the first time since recovering from long-term injuries.
Carpenter has eased her way back into top form over the last few weeks for Olympique Lyonnais, and played the 90 minutes in the French club’s Champions League quarter-final defeat to Chelsea this week.
“I was very excited to get called back into the national team,” Carpenter said.
“Being away from the national team for so long, it gives you that extra drive and extra hunger getting back in. Obviously, it’s a World Cup year, and that was a massive motivation for me through my injury.
“Definitely it was hard – I had some ups and downs – but the most important thing I kept thinking was, ‘Let’s go day by day.’ I don’t think I worked so hard in my life [as] what I did in my rehab.
“I feel stronger, faster, I feel better than before. I think it was great off-time to work on myself to be better. I feel fresh.”
Goalkeepers: Mackenzie Arnold, Teagan Micah, Jada Whyman, Lydia Williams.
Defenders: Ellie Carpenter, Charlotte Grant, Clare Hunt, Alanna Kennedy, Aivi Luik, Courtney Nevin, Clare Polkinghorne
Midfielders: Alex Chidiac, Kyra Cooney-Cross, Katrina Gorry, Emily van Egmond, Clare Wheeler, Tameka Yallop
Forwards: Larissa Crummer, Caitlin Foord, Mary Fowler, Sam Kerr, Holly McNamara, Hayley Raso, Cortnee Vine.
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