Chase a football, not fame

As an aspiring footballer you can chase money, or fame, or both. Or you can do what matters more than either. Chase a football. And I mean that literally.

As an aspiring footballer you can chase money, or fame, or both. Or you can do what matters more than either. Chase a football. And I mean that literally.

As the dust settles on the Young Socceroos' performance in Turkey, what's motivating our emerging generation falls into pin-sharp focus. There's already been a forensic examination of the sobering one-point accumulation in Turkey across the media spectrum. I'm not going to dwell on what happened. I'm more interested in what happens next.

Before the FIFA World Youth Championships, coach Paul Okon had put a stake in the ground. By and large, he chose to select players who were actually playing first team football. The way the cards fell, that meant the bulk of the squad were drawn from the Hyundai A-League, while a plethora of overseas-based players missed out. Mustafa Amini, who draws his wages from Borussia Dortmund but didn't make a single first team appearance at the Westfalenstadion last season, was seen as the standout omission. But he was by no means alone.

Some will say the failure of Australia to emerge from the group stage means Okon got it wrong. Amini, certainly, might have come in useful - particularly against the defensively-minded El Salvador. And I was as disappointed as anyone that we threw away the lead the times in a row. Results at this level DO count, and the mental fragility of the team - both collectively and individually - can't be ignored.

And yet I'm still holding out hope that Okon remains on the right track. The next season, or two, will be the judgement. If this group of players manages to properly develop their club careers - and thus fulfil their exciting potential - then the future is a lot brighter than many would have you believe. As always, playing at a decent level, week-in week-out, becomes the key.

Not everyone will get it right, of course. Football, at the professional level, is a notoriously fraught affair. But my sense is that Okon's move - and the support he received from the FFA for taking his stance - will prove to be a watershed moment in the way our players plan their careers.

Those who either stay at home to fine-tune their game, or go to foreign clubs as first-team recruits, will be rewarded. Those who fritter away the crucial years of their development as shadow players in exchange for the 'status' of being paid by a foreign club will be risking their careers. This is how it should be, but hasn't been until now. It's time to get over the cultural cringe.

The fact that Jamie Maclaren and Corey Gameiro have come back to join Perth Glory and Sydney FC respectively tells me the penny is starting to drop. Young Socceroos teammates Ryan Edwards (Reading), Ryan Williams (Fulham) and Jackson Irvine (Celtic) are thinking along the same lines as their careers threaten to flatline due to lack of first team football. Further up the food chain, the likes of Brent McGrath and Nathan Burns are finally looking towards the Hyundai A-League for rejuvenation after years of stagnation.

When Burns was at Adelaide United the world was at his feet. Now all that incredible promise is in danger of wasting away. To me, Burns is a textbook case of poor decision-making in managing a professional career.

When the stats were last collated in May, there were 185 Australian players based in 36 different countries. Those destinations included Malta, Myanmar, Fiji, Vanuatu, Iceland and the Philippines. I'm never going to knock ambition. Some of those players might simply be chasing the experience, and good luck them.

For instance, I don't know Josh Tanner, a 19-year defender who has just been released by 19FCV Dender, of the Belgian third division, or Patrick Antelmi, a 19-year-old striker released by Leeds United. But I do know they're among an estimated 20 overseas-based Australians sent to the dole queue at the end of last season.

What they have to do now, if they're fair dinkum, is make sure next season is all about playing regularly, wherever that may be. Far too many expats seem to be waiting for a breakthrough that's not going to come.

This is the way I see it. Acording to FIFA there are about 265 million players in the world, of which 38 million are registered. Of that 38 million, just 113,000 get paid to play. Of those 113,000, my view is that perhaps five percent are genuinely, indisputably, a class above. You can throw a blanket over the rest - some make it though opportunity, others through perserverence, others through luck. And even though they manage to carve out a living, in terms of pure ability they're often no better than those who don't. So they need to appreciate what they've got.

Which brings me back to the start. Never lose sight of the reason you began playing football in the first place. Because you love it. The pure, unadulterated, release, of spending 90 minutes with your mates chasing a football.

Like many, I'm still doing it at the age of 52. The bane of my existence, after all these years, is still the council groundsman who decides the field is too wet for play. Ask my wife what I'm like after a postponement. It can define the week. And I pay good money for the anxiety!

The truly great players never lose the joy, even if professional football often has. In Australia, it's not that we've stopped producing decent players, it's that we've lost focus. Hopefully what happened with the Young Socceroos in Turkey - and what happens next - will prove to be a circuit-breaker.

It's not about chasing fame and fortune. It's about chasing a football. Do that, and the rest will look after itself.