During their three campaigns prior to 2014, the Socceroos had always registered at least one point at the FIFA World Cup. They were the first to arrive in Brazil last winter – and the first to leave. The draw had not been kind to head coach Ange Postecoglou and his team. Lying in wait were Chile, who took Brazil to penalties in the second round, Holland, who finished third, and Spain, who despite their disastrous opening matches, were still reigning champions.
The competition came at a poignant time for the ‘Roos, who were bidding farewell to Dutchman Han Berger after five years as Technical Director at Football Federation Australia (FFA).
“We wanted to achieve a fundamental transformation, without trying to change the character of the country,” explained Berger.
“However, what Australia needed – in my opinion – was to have some different accents in the game; a bit more of a modern type of football. It’s a process that history shows takes at least a generation – a decade – so we are halfway through that.”
Despite returning home early sans points from the 2014 World Cup, the Socceroos showed great heart in the ‘Group of Death’ and, in flashes, real potential. This was a fair reflection of where the Australian game is at present.
Now it is time to herald a new era. The shrewd appointment of Belgian Eric Abrams signals great intent to complete Berger’s 10-year plan in order to have a competitive Socceroos side at the 2022 World Cup (if only it was to be on home soil).
“Eric will head all of our elite pathway and youth development structures in line with the National Curriculum that has been in place since 2009,” said FFA Chief Executive, David Gallop, upon announcing the appointment last week.
The consistent policies on development and coaching education are key aspects Abrams attributes to the successful program in Belgium. The 57-year-old, who has a mightily impressive and long résumé, implemented youth development programs in his homeland that saw the core of the 2014 World Cup quarter-finalists mature into world-class players. Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Roman Lakaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois all benefitted from the guidance of Abrams’ conveyer belt toward talent fulfilment. And with more and more Australian kids opting for the round ball, there will be no shortage of highly-skilled athletes to benefit from his tutelage.
“We won’t make a copy of Belgium, but we can implement some of the great things we did in Belgium in this strategy,” Abrams promised.
“And I’m convinced we will progress.”
As well as overseeing elite player development, he has been charged with implementing coaching education strategies in Australian football. Abrams will nourish the legacy planted by Berger that should allow the FFA to blossom and walk alone, without Europe holding their hand, into the third decade of this century.
In a review of the technical structure of Australian football, FFA Head of National Performance, Luke Casserly, highlighted youth technical development as a key area for improvement. With Abrams ensuring the evolution of world-class elite and assistance programs for male and female players up to the age of 16, the aim of providing a larger pool of technically gifted players for natural selection will be a success.
“A big part of his role will be to work with Hyundai A-League and Westfield W-League clubs, and our State and Territory Member Federations to ensure our programs are aligned and world-class,” said Casserly.
The financial status of clubs in the A-League does not seem to restrict such ambitious ventures as signing the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, and David Villa (no doubt encouraged by the FFA and Han Berger) in an attempt to raise the profile of the domestic game. Now Eric Abrams is continuing Berger’s work towards ensuring that this money trickles down through the National Youth League, and to the grassroots of Australian football.
Berger’s predecessor Rob Baan was the first through the door in a series of arrivals from Holland. Gus Hiddink took Australia to the knockout stages of the 2006 World Cup, one better than his compatriot, Pim Verbeek, managed four years later when the Socceroos fell short on goal difference. Jan Versleijen and Hesterine de Reus, both of the Netherlands, coached the youth sides and ‘Matildas’ respectively as the FFA looked for a bright, Dutch-inspired future.
Having played the key notes and laid the mould for the development of ‘the beautiful game’ in Australia – where it has to compete with stalwarts NRL and AFL – Berger began to strategically dismantle ‘Oranje’ influence. Since Captain Willem Janszoon, a Dutch seafarer, became the first European to set foot on Australian land in 1606, it seems one of the greatest guardians of worldwide football has attempted to pave the green and gold brick road to footballing glory.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” Berger reflected.
“I’m a perfectionist – I always want to do more. But, looking back, I think the biggest change is that a lot of people have started to think a bit differently about football.”
Hosting The Asia Cup for the first time in January 2015 should ensure the swell of interest in football continues, especially with Del Piero, Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton lending their faces to the competition as ambassadors.
With Abrams at the helm, this momentum will be seized, and it seems highly likely that a golden generation to usurp the Kewell-Viduka-Neill-Cahill era is not too far away.