Okon gives Aussie system a chance to shine
With his selection of the current Young Socceroos squad Paul Okon appears to have drawn a line in the sand, one that may be good for Australian football.
Has Paul Okon drawn a line in the sand? If he has - as seems likely - there is some irony, welcome as it is. As a player coming towards the end of his career, shortly after the agony of another World Cup near miss - this one in Montevideo - Okon was asked on his return to Sydney airport whether he might consider winding down his days in the old NSL. The response from the-then Socceroos captain was withering.
How times have changed. In those days, Okon clearly believed playing domestic club football was a retrograde step. And that's putting it kindly. Nowadays, based on his final selection for the forthcoming FIFA World Youth Championships, Okon seems to be telling the emerging generation the complete opposite.
That's not simply an overwhelming endorsement of our new national competition, the Hyundai A-League. It's also an indication that Okon, the coach, has learned to take a more holistic view than he did as a player.
This happy confluence of events is borne out by his decision to take 15 home-based players to Turkey.
Unlike Pim Verbeek, Okon won't accept that training in Europe is better than playing in Australia. It's a bold call, and I'm hoping it's the right one.
Results from the WYC will give us a better idea, although they won't settle the argument. The message is almost more important than the outcome.
Young players need to appreciate that in terms of going overseas, timing is everything. Sitting on the bench, or playing in the reserves, has a shelf life. Go past your use-by date, and the damage can be irreversible.
Corey Gameiro seems to be taking heed. The striker who scored all of Australia's goals in the final qualifying tournament looks set to turn his back on Europe in order to play regular first team football in the Hyundai A-League next season. Gameiro got no first team football at Fulham, and struggled for game time on loan in The Netherlands, before coming back for a brief stint at Wellington Phoenix last season. Gameiro, no doubt, will be back in Europe again, but he's taken the sensible view that at this crucial stage of his development he can't afford yet another season of false hope and missed opportunity abroad. Smart move, I reckon.
These decisions, of course, are all individual ones. After I wrote a recent column about the pitfalls of chasing fame and fortune abroad, I had a long and interesting conversation with the father of a young player employed by an English club, a player who had aspirations of playing for the Young Socceroos in Turkey. He didn't get picked, but the family view seems to be that the pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction. Players employed by foreign clubs no longer seem to have the inside rail on national selection. Look at the Socceroos, even. For many, it's been a shock to the system.
The father I spoke to takes the traditional view that players like his son are further advanced than their peers still playing in Australia because they are working with, and playing against, better players. Maybe. But if the prospect of first team football remains as elusive as ever, at what point does that player start to go backwards? Therein lies the dilemma.
It's a dilemma Okon has crystallised with his selections. Playing in a tournament like the WYC is a massive window of opportunity, and Okon has rewarded those players who have chosen to stay at home until they are sure they are ready for the next step. It's an action which speaks louder than any words, and of course there are risks attached. But it's a risk our game needs to take, sooner or later.
As I wrote recently, far too many young Australians are in danger of wasting their talents as they battle away on the fringes of European football. Indeed I fear Terry Antonis, who has recently signed a long-term deal with Parma, might have jumped too soon after a less-that-auspicious season with Sydney FC. We'll see.
Okon, perhaps the best teenager I've ever seen, knows the pitfalls better than anyone. He also knows quality when he sees it. And he's seen enough of it in the Hyundai A-League to believe these players will rise to the occasion in Turkey - a tournament which could also define his own coaching career. Bravo.