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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Pagonis

Nestory Irankunda and the Sisyphean struggle of Australian football

Nestory Irankunda’s journey over the past weeks captures both the positives and the negatives a young footballer must endure in Australia. From eye-catching performances to off-field controversies, his resilience highlights his potential and the hurdles talents like his face in the football landscape.

Front Page Football: Nestory Irankunda Adelaide United Australian Football Olyroos

A dejected Nestory Irankunda after Adelaide United's loss to Macarthur FC. (Image: Ben Blaess/BDb.media)


Sisyphus, the protagonist of an Ancient Greek myth, was condemned by the Gods to push a boulder up a mountain, only for it to roll back down before he repeated that task for eternity.


Some weeks, it feels like if Sisyphus and those mythical deities existed in our modern society, the King of Ephyra would be condemned to spend the rest of eternity seeing Australian football rise, along with his hopes, before it once again hits rock bottom.


In many ways, Nestory Irankunda's past fortnight is a microcosm of Australian football's inability to get out of its own way.

Given Irankunda's extreme raw talent, it is not an understatement to say that Australian football has stumbled across a pot of gold that it does not know how to use.


The young winger's final season at Adelaide United has been anything but smooth, but for an 18-year-old in any facet of life, growing pains are part of the job description. Regardless, Irankunda has been the Reds' biggest inspiration in the final third, scoring seven goals while assisting a further six.


Despite securing a move to Bayern Munich, Irankunda could not have been more present and engaged with his current club. He came into the Macarthur game two weeks after scoring his first senior hat-trick against Western United. That clinical display was followed by an inspired, creative performance capped off by two assists that saw the Reds overturn a two-goal deficit away to Perth Glory.


It is almost absurd to think that after such a dominant fortnight, Australia's brightest young talent could have entered his final home game with controversy circling him.


But as often happens in Australian football, the absurd became reality. Sisyphus once again watched his boulder roll back down the mountain.


It all started when Olyroos manager Tony Vidmar overlooked Irankunda for his U23 AFC Asian Cup squad. The coach cited that the young star is on a "roller coaster 24/7" and that he wanted to protect him after what has indeed been a mentally challenging year.


This omission inadvertently caused a media storm, but that was not the issue. If the story stops there, the talk eventually dies down.


Speculation grew when Marco Tilio withdrew from the squad due to injury. Irankunda was reportedly sounded out through back channels about his interest in replacing the Melbourne City loanee. That was certainly a bizarre move after Vidmar's comments days earlier. Thus, it is no surprise Irankunda was not responsive to being a late inclusion for the tournament.


At the same time, it is understandable that an 18-year-old, mentally prepared not to travel with the Olyroos, would want to continue his career-best form at home in the final months before his big move to Germany.

Then the Australian trait of tall poppy syndrome reared its head, cutting down a promising footballer at a key moment in his growth.

A day before the Macarthur clash, the Reds were rocked by reports that two clubs had approached Football Australia requesting Irankunda be stood down during the Olyroos' Asian Cup window for supposedly rejecting an approach to join the squad.


Veart claimed that two of the clubs that Adelaide will play in the season's final weeks were responsible for the report. Central Coast Chairman Richard Peil confirmed today that the Mariners were one of the clubs to question Football Australia.

“He (Irankunda) didn’t speak to anyone from FA (Football Australia). There was no contact whatsoever from the FA to Nestor, so I don’t know where it’s coming from," Veart said following Adelaide's 2-1 defeat to the Bulls on Friday night.


"I had a conversation with Tony Vidmar before the squad was announced, and had a conversation after the squad was announced, and I had a conversation with him this week. At no time did they select him."

 

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After reiterating that an official call-up never arrived, Veart shared his disappointment at the two clubs that tried getting in the way of a talented young player and his football.


"I suppose it’s disappointing that two clubs wanted to try and stop a young player from playing football. It says more about the two clubs than what it does about Nestor,” he said.


This part of the situation is discouraging. Adelaide's remaining games, before the initial reports, included matches against Macarthur, Western United, the Mariners, and Brisbane Roar. All four clubs have relied heavily on their young players this season.


When clubs with similar priorities to Adelaide's start targeting Australia's top talent just days after the Olyroos coach highlighted the tough spot the 18-year-old is in, it reveals a lot about the self-interest prevalent in our country's football scene.

Trying to block a future Socceroo's path to playing time in a country where young footballers already struggle for game time is perplexing. It is even more frustrating when Irankunda was already left out of the initial squad and did not cause the situation himself.


If we take Vidmar's comments at face value, staying at home, seeing out the season with Adelaide, and spending quality time with friends and family before jetting off to Munich would benefit Irankunda at this stage of his career. If the coach had thought otherwise, you would think he would have selected him for the initial squad.


Say an official approach from Football Australia did arrive, which by all accounts, it did not, it completely contradicts what Vidmar stated after Irankunda's original omission.

Front Page Football: Nestory Irankunda Adelaide United fans Australian Football Olyroos

Two clubs lobbied the standing down of Reds crowd favourite Nestory Irankunda to Football Australia. (Image: Ben Blaess/BDb.media)


Football Australia rightly rejected the absurd requests to stand Irankunda down, which saw him deemed available for his final home game at Coopers Stadium.


The two clubs are part of the collective that owns the league earning revenue using the teenager's extensive highlight reel, and despite their appeal to see Irankunda sidelined, the young star showed up ready to play.


Oddly, despite it ending in disappointment, the nature of how the night played out was a fitting end to his time playing in Adelaide.


Irankunda silenced his doubters, as he has done so often, with a goal that once again made global rounds on social media. After Macarthur took the lead, though, Irankunda had a chance to claim a point for the Reds from the penalty spot but saw his effort saved.


In 90 minutes, we saw the brilliance of Nestory Irankunda's talent and were reminded that he is still in the midst of his development as a footballer and as a human being.

Despite the crushing disappointment, Irankunda made time after the game, with his family's support, to ensure every signature and selfie request was fulfilled before he had to be dragged away.

Despite being visibly upset after the game, Nestory Irankunda made time for fans with the support of his family and the club. (Image: Ben Blaess/BDb.media)


This move was telling because, despite the three points lost, an 18-year-old had the sense of mind to realise that some things are more significant than wins and losses. Irankunda could have understandably gone straight down the tunnel, but he realised it would disappoint thousands of his adoring public.


That is more than can be said about the two clubs that decided to put their self-interests first by inserting themselves in a situation that did not involve them and that they had no context on. It is important to remember that Football Australia's decision will allow many of their fans to get one last glimpse of Irankunda before he moves to one of Europe's biggest clubs.


Is Nestory Irankunda flawed? Sure, but who isn't? Especially an 18-year-old footballer who has been in the spotlight as a star of a professional football club, a position he has occupied since he was 16.

Irankunda's treatment in the past week can break anyone, and Veart reflected that it is probably a positive his time in the A-League Men is ending.


"I keep saying that he has a long way to go; we've tried to help him as much as we can to get him ready for that next part of his journey, and it is going to be difficult for him, but I think it is going to be better for him to leave the country and go play over there because here we just don't know how to look after young players," he said.


It is a sad reflection from a coach who has been involved in youth development for years, but unfortunately, it is one steeped in the reality of Australian football.


As a sport and a country, Australia must do better to support the next generation of standout players. While some fans may not act that way, it is troubling when clubs, meant to be the game's custodians, plot against the best and brightest talents. It is time for a hard look in the mirror.


In concluding the story of Sisyphus, French philosopher Albert Camus reflected, "The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."


Sisyphus finds peace with his endless, futile work and chooses a positive outlook. At times, this reality is the what it is like to be involved in Australian football.


We will happily watch Nestory Irankunda's journey overseas and, hopefully, his ascent to a mainstay in European senior football and the Socceroos. However, Irankunda will achieve success because of his response and subsequent development off the back of a system that tried to cut him down on his way up.


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