Thursday, January 11, 2007

Baan heads the technical revolution

In Australia, with new football still in its infancy, all new appointments demand a figurehead, a name that screams the governing body's statement of intent. The FFA made such a declaration when they recruited former Rugby Union honcho John O'Neill to steer the ship though the early days. And a similar point was made when Guus Hiddink accepted an offer to coach the Socceroos to the World Cup.

So when the latest - and possibility most crucial - Australian footballing position was created last year, a character with similar standing was required. Names like Gerard Houllier and Aime Jacquet were banded around for the newly-formed role of technical director before the FFA, once again, thought orange and quickly snapped up Dutchman Rob Baan for the post.

Some Australian journos might offer otherwise but nobody - not even the most argumentative of pundits - had really either heard of Baan or anticipated his appointment. When one southern scribe broke the news in December, his research was immaculate and it painted the picture of a coach-turned-technical director of the highest order: managerial stints at all levels of the Dutch national team, domestic coaching roles and advisory positions with the Dutch FA.

Baan, understandably, has remained rather illusive since that announcement. He's given few interviews and you have to wonder whether he might be able to mosey down the corridors of the FFA's Sydney headquarters unnoticed. It seems he would rather let his work do the talking, starting with his temporary assignment of guiding the under-23s through the opening Olympic qualifying group phase while Graham Arnold concentrates on the Asian Cup build-up with the seniors.

We will surely know more about Baan's style and approach - what we're really all clamouring for - following his first training camp with the under-23s next week in Canberra. But if Baan's preferred system for Australia's national teams hasn't yet been made public, something is already certain. He's got one hell of a job on his hands.

The state of youth football in Australia is gloomy. A variety of factors have had the finger pointed their way but recent results speak for themselves. Last year both the under-17s and the under-20s failed to qualify for their respective World Cups in what were their maiden attempts since switching allegiances to the AFC. Few, meanwhile, hold much hope of their under-23 counterparts fairing any brighter in the upcoming Olympic campaign for a spot at Beijing 2008.

It is this group to which the attention will switch over coming months. The Olyroos, as they are cheerfully known locally, must first negotiate a preliminary home and away tie with Chinese Taipei next month before joining a group including regional heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as either Jordan or Kyrgyzstan. And that's just in the first round.

Baan's first-ever 24-man squad was selected with the help of Arnold and features no overseas players as is usual for this type of gathering. That is not the concern. The concern is that only one quarter of the group have amassed 10 or more domestic starts this season including Sydney's Mark Milligan who was part of Hiddink's World Cup squad for Germany.

One quarter. That means 18 of the 24 players on duty are not considered good enough for regular places in any of the eight A-League sides. This is a dangerous predicament for the FFA with the under-23 age group suffering badly on two major counts. Firstly, the lack of a youth or reserve league, meaning some of these players are literally relying on a bimonthly national team gathering for any semblance of match action. Secondly, this group were the ones who missed out most when the former national league disbanded and the A-League took 15 months to start up a couple of years back.

Things might change next year with the likelihood proposals on increasing domestic squad limits to 23 players and limiting overseas quotas will be ratified. But the major worry is realistically perhaps just two or three current Olyroos are at a standard where they're ready to step forward for senior duty after the blizzard of anticipated retirements after July's Asian Cup. At present, the future's not that bright. But, some might say, at least it's orange.

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

Australian Soccer News

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