Jordan Bos transfer evidence of Australia's improving talent pathways

Zeljko Kalac's 1995 transfer from Sydney United to Leicester City for AU$1.7 million was, surprisingly, an Australian record up until this week.

Somehow, across almost three decades in which global transfer fees became hideously large, in which the Socceroos qualified for five successive World Cups, and Australia established a fully professional league, no club had been able to secure more cash.

Why did this happen? Did talented footballers suddenly stop being born in Australia for a few decades? Of course they didn't.

While a dash of good fortune inevitably plays a role in producing any significant amount of raw talent, the water in Argentina, Japan or Croatia doesn't possess some mystical effect that imbues its population with footballing ability. It's not just down to scale, either; the latter nation has a population smaller than Melbourne but has still produced the talent to make the final four of back-to-back World Cups.

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Australia has produced fine players across the past decades but there's long been an acknowledgement that it needed to do better for its young footballers -- provide them with the education, pathways, opportunities, trust, and footballing culture that will allow them to become the best version of themselves.

There are numerous questions still to be asked on that front, but the next generation of Socceroos, rightly, has generated excitement.

In addition to Jordan Bos' AU$2m move from Melbourne City to KVC Westerlo, this week saw the announcement of a 23-player Olyroos squad for the Maurice Revello Tournament featuring standout A-League Men performers Calem Nieuwenhof, Marco Tilio and Noah Botic, as well as an Under-17 Asian Cup squad highlighted by Adelaide United sensation and Bayern Munich target Nestory Irankunda. In England, former Sydney FC youth Cameron Peupion became the latest Australian to play in the Premier League, making his debut as a second-half substitute in Brighton & Hove Albion's 4-1 loss to Newcastle United having been named PL2 Player of the Month for April,, while in France Mohamed Toure recently made his Ligue 1 debut for Reims.

There's no guarantee they or any of the numerous other players generating the current level of excitement are sure things: the difficulty in transforming from a great prospect to a great player is profound. But thanks to the defining story of our time, circumstances have conspired to give them a better shot.

Creating an almost immediate and long-lasting chilling effect on player movement and international arrivals, the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting border closures had a stark effect on A-League recruitment, leading to the average age of the competition falling to 25 at the end of the 2021-22 season, with 45% of all players contracted aged 23 or under.

Add this to a change in contract regulations that increased the number of scholarships clubs were able to offer, moves to expand the number of slots on benches for players aged 23 and under, and two new teams in Western United and Macarthur FC entering the A-League, and it was an almost perfect storm of development. The A-League, according to the CIES Football Observatory, was suddenly offering more opportunities for young players than any other league in Asia.

The theme was opportunity. In light of the pandemic, A-League clubs were almost forced to play young players across the past few seasons, and, combined with other strategic measures, it led to a boon in development. Clubs have slowly begun to capitalize on this with transfers, add-ons and sell-on fees providing further incentive to continue on the path.

Yet there are other, more nebulous factors also worth touching upon. One of the great curses for those in the business of youth development is that, when done right, success is measured along a timeline of years, if not decades; anyone who works in football will say that might as well be a century when it comes to the ruthless, results-based analysis that continues to dominate the local scene.

And even with the fullness of time, it's not always easy to determine which individual policy has played a role: each individual's development and the weighting of factors involved will be unique to their circumstances. However, even if a direct causal link is impossible to determine on a systematic basis, the correlation between the influx of the current crop of talent and their existence, given that the former was the express goal of the latter, means they merit mention.

The maturation of A-Leagues academies, for example, means players now have the ability to spend the majority of their developmental years inside the setup of an ALM side, ostensibly receiving consistent, professional, and high-quality coaching over a sustained period. Mileage may differ depending on the individual club or for the player -- Alou Kuol developed at the Goulburn Valley Suns, for example -- but seven members of the Olyroos squad announced for the Maurice Revello Tournament were part of the first intake of players to the Sydney FC academy in 2015.

"The clubs that have robust academy systems are equipped to identify and develop talent at a higher frequency," PFA co-chief executive Beau Busch told ESPN. "The further enhancement of those environments, through the establishment of national academy criteria, for example, will likely accelerate talent development."

Every academy has been entering sides in their local NPL competitions since 2016, meaning young players were able to play some level of competitive football across the winter even if the Y-League proved a woeful developmental environment in the summer,. As evidenced by the Kuol brothers, Toure brothers, Irankunda, Kusini Yengi, and more, Australian football is also doing a better job identifying and supporting a new wave of African migrant talent. Even the much-maligned national curriculum likely has had an impact, with the current generation of up-and-coming players having undergone their footballing education under its watch.

Though almost impossible to accurately quantify, it's also important to note that cultural and familial factors are another important aspect; Bos has spoken about the hours spent playing with his father in the backyard, for example.

"Most importantly, players' development outside of the professional system is the most crucial, and often overlooked, component of their development," Busch said. "While every player's pathway is different, there are clear patterns in the emergence of the best talents globally. Through our own research on the 'Golden Generation' of Socceroos, we revealed the critical factors that propelled some of the best players to the highest levels of the game.

"Our collective ambition should be to convert that evidence into policy and practical systems. We need to increase our focus to the most important phase of a players' development: at the grassroots level and when these players are in adolescence."

Ultimately, if there's one key takeaway to be made from the crop coming through it is that the cattle are there. They have always been there, of course, but the current crop provide evidence for those beyond the most ardent of true believers that Australia has always had what it takes to produce these players; they just needed to be put in better positions to succeed. And therein lies the challenge for the years ahead.

With clubs moving on from the pandemic, the surge in youth minutes has subsided and veteran-inclined service resumed. Weighted by minutes played, the average age in the ALM this season, per FbRef, was 28.2, compared with 26.9 last season. The last pre-pandemic season in 2018-19, before Western United and Macarthur entered, was 27.49.

The expansion of the ALM and the introduction of a national second tier will help as almost by default it will grant expanded opportunities for young players. If existing clubs don't play youth, open opportunities for others that will.

However, the Y-League, now A-League Youth (ALY), has been suspended since the onset of the pandemic. League administrators, acknowledging the old model of the competition was woefully inadequate, have repeatedly committed to returning the competition and Football Australia's targeting of a winter national second tier has now ostensibly opened the calendar for the return of a summer youth league.

An APL spokesperson told ESPN that with Football Australia indicating its proposed national second tier will be a winter competition -- the federation is targeting a May 2024 launch -- the league was engaged in planning and consulting with its clubs on a new, fit-for-purpose summer competition for young players, who would also play in their local NPL competitions in the winter.

Even beyond these measures, there is the significant cost to play football at an elite level becoming increasingly prohibitive -- risking shutting the door on talent prospects from less-affluent backgrounds -- and the ongoing work that must be undertaken to properly integrate the local game with the global transfer market and reform its local version, steps which the federation is pursuing amid heated debate.

As ever, Australian football's great future challenge will not be producing quality youth, but providing the opportunities they need to succeed.