Graham Arnold implores Australia to invest in youth development

Previewing the Socceroos' do-or-die World Cup clash with Denmark (1:58)

ESPN's Joey Lynch provides an update from Australia's training base in Qatar ahead of their final group stage game at the World Cup. (1:58)

DOHA, Qatar -- In March 2019, Graham Arnold manned the dugout at the Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium, watching on as Australia's under-23s met South Korea in the final game of qualification for the AFC U23 Championships.

It was a sliding doors moment, with the ramifications still felt three and a half years later in Qatar. The coach, though, believes it will mean very little unless the "massive concerns" still existing in Australian youth development are fixed.

Citing the need to reinvigorate the pathway into the Socceroos, Arnold combined the men's under-23 and senior roles under his purview when he was appointed by Football Australia and on that steamy night in the Cambodian capital, he faced a defining moment. The Olyroos needed a result to progress to the Championships and allow themselves an opportunity to book a place at the Tokyo Olympics.

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And a result arrived. Thanks to a brace from Nicholas D'Agostino, whom Arnold would later give a senior debut to during World Cup qualifying, Australia secured 2-2 draw with the Koreans and advanced to the following year's U23 Championships in which they subsequently booked a place at the (delayed) Tokyo Olympics.

Nathaniel Atkinson, Keanu Baccus, Thomas Deng, Riley McGree, and Harry Souttar were all in that squad and three and a half years on are part of the Socceroos squad at the 2022 World Cup, which will face a make-or-break moment against Denmark with a place in the round of 16 on the line on Wednesday evening. Qatar participants Kye Rowles, Marco Tilio, Joel King and Cameron Devlin all featured in Tokyo, while Denis Genreau, Daniel Arzani and Connor Metcalfe, who have all won Socceroos caps during the past World Cup cycle and shape as key contributors in future squads albeit they are not in Doha.

In effect, that 2-2 draw with South Korea not only helped propel several players to a World Cup, but kickstarted a process in which the foundation of the Socceroos for 2026, and possibly beyond, was laid.

"[I was] sitting and talking to Harry Souttar, Riley McGree, Keanu Baccus and Cameron Devlin and we started talking about three years ago in Cambodia with the Olympic team," said Arnold on Tuesday. "The last 15 minutes of that game was walking football [but] if we didn't draw that game, we wouldn't have got through and then they probably wouldn't be here today.

"A lot of them so it's been a fantastic journey, but it's one that you know that as our team identity many journeys one jersey, which is not finishing."

Arnold believes his moves to strengthen the pathway between his nation's under-23s and senior sides are among his proudest achievements, but he feels it served as a band-aid solution to the way Australia approaches developing future generations.

"The Socceroos are just the icing on the cake," he said. "Whatever that icing [is], if it tastes good or bad, the most important thing is the ingredients, and the ingredients are junior development and junior national teams. And if that's not right, then the icing will not taste very good."

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Perhaps Arnold subconsciously fancies himself a future contestant on the Great British Bake Off, but one can see what he's getting at.

Siloed across multiple state federations, an independent and closed professional league, numerous lobby groups, divergent models between boys and girls development -- not to mention the fiefdoms that inevitably develop in such a system -- the push for resourcing and reform is inevitably subject to a myriad of interests and demands.

For the coach, however, further review and reforms must be implemented if Australia is going to keep pace with the increasing investment taking place across Asian football.

"Whatever happens with this World Cup, [Football Australia] need to do a review of what's going on in junior development," he declared.

"I went [to the 2018 FIFA World Cup] when I first got appointed to the job [to start] after Russia, and I watched them play. I could see straight away that Tim Cahill, Mile Jedinak, Mark Milligan and Robbie Kruse -- an ageing squad were there.

"I'd already taken the [Socceroos] job, now I needed to find players and when I started looking, there was nothing coming through. I was ringing A-Leagues coaches and you're talking about two players per club. I could barely put a squad together. It's not right.

"We need more kids getting the opportunity in Australia and for me, there are massive concerns for the future moving forward unless it's fixed.

"[Taking the under-23 job] was a quick fix. That's why I did the Olympic team for nothing, that's why I had to do it. When I asked the organisation 'What's the Olympic Program?' and it's 10 days of preparation and they didn't even have a coach two months before, those types of things are not right."

Every new administration is eager to cast itself as a proactive agent, Football Australia and its new CEO James Johnson released an XI Principles guiding document for Australian football in 2020 seeking to address some of these issues; making increasing the number of match minutes available to young players its fifth pillar.

The federation has also committed to the important step of bringing in a National Second Tier competition that will emphasise developing homegrown young players and appointed Ernie Merrick as a chief football officer.

However, the cost of playing football, especially at its elite levels, remains an ongoing problem. Mark Schwarzer, a member of his nation's "Golden Generation" of Socceroos, took Johnson and federal sports minister Anika Wells to task during their visit to Doha, telling them "the cost to play football for the average individual is astronomical."

Due to the chilling effects of COVID-19 on international player movement, the A-Leagues saw an increase in youngsters' playing minutes in recent seasons, albeit the nature of these minutes and the roles youngsters are expected to fill mean the broader figures need context. The league has made the presence of young players and its status as the breeding ground for future internationals one of its key selling points, but is yet to reintroduce its youth league after it was put on ice during the pandemic. Academy systems across the league are also inconsistent.

Private academies charging exorbitant fees, the cost to secure and maintain the coaching badges, talented junior players "shopping" for clubs rather than laying down roots, and the shifting social and cultural dynamics of modern Australian life that the game needs to adapt to are amongst other causes for concern.

It's not simple, and it's also not yet known if Arnold will be involved in any further introspection. The coach's contract is set to end when the last ball is kicked in anger on the Socceroos' campaign, and it was reported earlier in November that the federation had yet to discuss a further pact.

"When you say my contract's up, I've seen out the four and a half years or so, and I look at it that for the first time in four and a half years, I've got my future in my own hands," Arnold said. "And I can do what I want. And I will need a break after this."