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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Pagonis

A Socceroos goal made in the A-Leagues, despite the A-Leagues

In Australia's match against France at Qatar 2022, Matthew Leckie and Craig Goodwin combined to score their country's first World Cup goal from open play in over eight years. It was a goal made in the A-Leagues, with the wingers starring for Melbourne City and Adelaide United, respectively. But their struggles to earn an initial shot at professional football prove that Australia must invest more time and effort in developing young footballers.

Craig Goodwin scored on his debut World Cup match against France, but it was anything but a smooth journey to the big time. (Twitter: @AdelaideUnited)

Matthew Leckie and Craig Goodwin share many similarities, including being Socceroos who have represented their country at World Cups. In club land, both have played on the wing for Adelaide United and Melbourne City (Heart for Goodwin).

None of these similarities is out of the ordinary for two Australian footballers. The two wingers do share one glaring similarity, though. They both worked in fast-food restaurants while playing lower-league football, dealing with constant rejection in pursuit of their dream careers.

After combining to stun the world champions in the opening moments of a match in the most prominent sports tournament, the pair would be remiss not to reflect on their inspirational journeys. Socceroos fans would also be remiss not to ask questions about a couple of their best and brightest footballers. Why did they have to overcome rejection after rejection in their home country before getting an overdue opportunity to impress in its professional domestic competition?

Matthew Leckie's career saw him play in Germany and the Bundesliga. A top achievement for any player, let alone an Australian with a more arduous path to football's main stage than his European-based counterparts. It is almost impossible to comprehend that as a 17-year-old, despite dazzling performances, Leckie was dismissed by the majority of A-League clubs.

In January, Leckie's agent John Grimaud spoke to Michael Zappone and Archie Thompson on the 'Football From A to Z' podcast. He mentioned how he came across a young Leckie when he was playing for the Bulleen Lions' first team while also working part-time at a fast-food restaurant. Grimaud was captivated by Leckie's quality and reached out to his father, requesting to represent the teenager.

In the podcast, Grimaud stated that he reached out to all the A-League clubs. Initially, only Central Coast Mariners coach Lawrie McKinna showed any interest. Talks broke down when the latter insisted on a trial before the possibility of a contract.

It was when a mutual connection between Grimaud, then Socceroos coach Pim Verbeek, and Adelaide United coach Aurelio Vidmar opened the door for Leckie. The South Australian club eventually signed him on a two-year minimum wage contract with no guarantees of playing time.

Leckie's quality was so apparent within four weeks that he had forced his way into the starting line-up. Within five months, the Reds were fielding a half-a-million-dollar offer from Bundesliga side Borussia Mönchengladbach. Adelaide held out for more money and lost the winger for a training compensation fee a year later.

After a slow start, Leckie's career in Germany took off with the Australian flying the flag high for his country in a top European league for the better part of a decade. Say Grimaud had not come across Leckie and did not have the connections he has in the football world. You wonder whether the winger's skill would have eventually been rewarded by one of the A-League clubs that were so keen on dismissing the talented teenager.

Goodwin's journey to crack the professional scene of Australian football was even more turbulent than Leckie's. The only professional club in town, Adelaide United, rejected the South Australian winger. After playing for Adelaide Croatia Raiders in the local competition, Goodwin took the plunge and moved to Victoria to play for the Oakleigh Cannons, hoping to get more exposure across the border.

While playing for Oakleigh, Goodwin lived paycheque to paycheque, also working at KFC to make ends meet. His outstanding form was eventually rewarded by Melbourne Heart, who gave the South Australian a chance. Goodwin repaid the faith on his debut, receiving the Man of the Match award against bitter rivals Melbourne Victory in his first match as a professional footballer.

Goodwin's form since took him to Newcastle, where he impressed alongside Emily Heskey. Eventually, he was back home to Adelaide, where the Reds signed the player they had rejected two years before. Goodwin's three spells in Adelaide, broken up by stints in the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia, have been high calibre and successful. It is not hyperbolic to argue that the once-unwanted winger is United's best-ever player.

Suppose Goodwin did not have the grit, determination, and support systems that allowed him to move states for his passion. Rejection may have robbed South Australian football of one of its most illustrious players. Even worse, the state wouldn't even know about him.

The journeys of Leckie and Goodwin should be celebrated; Australia loves an underdog story, after all. As a footballing nation, though, we must ensure that cases like these are exceptions, not the rule.

Of course, introducing a National Second Division will help amplify opportunities for up-and-coming young players. But there are changes we can make right now that will undoubtedly improve the quality and quantity of players the country produces.

Take Australia's current striker conundrum as a microcosm of the country's development troubles. Since Tim Cahill retired, the Socceroos have yet to be able to fill his legendary boots. The reason why that has occurred is evident in its domestic competition.

One similarity the majority of A-League Men sides share is foreign strikers. Regardless of their quality, they are everywhere. The majority of clubs default to bringing in an international striker without taking time to consider the players already in their building.

We must question whether this transfer policy is always necessary. Thoughtlessly bringing in a striker and committing big money to him can affect the development of more than capable young players waiting patiently for their chances.

Take Kusini Yengi, for example. Last season, the young striker's injury saw Adelaide United sign Japanese forward Hiroshi Ibusuki. The striker then switched to the Western Sydney Wanderers, who signed Sulejman Krpić. Despite the Bosnian's underwhelming form, Yengi has been forced to play on the wing.

Yengi is one of the privileged few as he plays and contributes, even if he is out of position. That was evident when he recorded his first goal in red and black to win the Sydney Derby. In the league, there are too many cases of more than capable young players not playing because their clubs signed a visa player in their position. The club, in this instance, needed to be more conscious of its stock when recruiting.

On the other hand, one position Australia always seems competent in developing is goalkeepers. That fact is not surprising when there have been minimal international goalkeepers in its domestic league throughout the years. Australians are primarily preferred between the sticks, with visa spots utilised further up the pitch.

For Australian football to succeed, the country's domestic clubs must accept their position in world football's food chain. The A-League Men is low on that list, but that is fine should the clubs involved play to their strengths.

Australian clubs can thrive by proactively giving their capable young players opportunities and allowing them the chance to succeed overseas when the time is right. The incoming generated revenue can then be reinvested into the next group of young players, with only imports of high quality or in positions that lack depth being signed.

Leckie and Goodwin forced themselves into the system with grit, determination, fortunate timing, and impeccable performances. A few years later, they moved to Europe, and this week combined to open the scoring against the world champions.

Say one or both had decided during their formative years that the journey was too hard and diverted into a different field. Australian football would have unknowingly suffered. Leckie and Goodwin's path is the one less travelled. We can only imagine how many players took up a different option when it became available because they felt let down by the sport they grew up loving.

Cristian Volpato is another player that did not receive a chance in Australia. But somehow, one of Italy's biggest clubs, AS Roma, decided he was worth a punt. As a country, Australia must be better at giving the next young Leckies, Goodwins, and even Volpatos the opportunities to shine. Should it not, it is unknowingly sabotaging its long-term national future for short-term club pleasure. But clubs could also achieve this short-term success with younger players. Is this sacrifice one they are willing to continue to make?

Click here to read another opinion piece from writer Antonis Pagonis, who takes a closer look at why the Socceroos are better placed for success at the 2022 FIFA World Cup compared to 2018.


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