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Attitudes shifting slowly in Australian football

It's almost been a year since Football Federation Australia technical director Han Berger unveiled Australia's National Football Curriculum; a blueprint of how its young players - and coaches - are to be developed in order to compete with the world's elite.

Soccernet spoke exclusively with Berger about the reception the National Football Curriculum has received, how he rates the future generation of Socceroos and what's needed for Australian football to step up to the next level.

Q: It's almost been a year since the National Football Curriculum was unveiled. How has it been received?
A:
In general, I think very positive. I have the feeling that everybody was more or less waiting for a clear direction from the FFA, so that's why I have the feeling that in general it was received very positively. We are still trying to reinforce the messages coming from it. We have actually planned for a second roadshow around Australia in May to go to all the federations and invite all the coaches and people involved to again explain and show all the initiatives coming from the curriculum.

Q: Are you satisfied with the progress made thus far?
A:
Taking the logistical difficulties in a big country like Australia into consideration, I can't be unhappy with the progress we are making. We are more or less on track. We have chosen a top-down approach for this huge project. That means first we launched the curriculum, now we are in the process of bringing it to life, but to bring a huge project like this to life in a huge country like Australia with a structure that is not uniform around the country, you can imagine that is a huge and challenging project. We are now in the process of appointing technical directors in every state and territory and they have to report directly to me and it is their task to bring the curriculum down to the levels of clubs, state teams and then down to grassroots and all the zones and associations. That's where we are at.

Q. Has getting the message across been more difficult than you anticipated?
A:
I come from a very small country, so logistically these processes are easier [in Holland]. In Australia, you have so many people coming from different backgrounds so that also influences their thinking about football, so this is like trying to make the whole of Europe play football from the same curriculum. I thought I could do a lot in four years and I still think I can do a lot in four years but this is a process that will not be ready in four years. Where I come from it took more than 100 years to get football on the level where it is now so you can't expect Australia to catch up to that in five or ten years, but at least I'm happy with the level of awareness that has been created.

If we can bring the curriculum and all the starting points to life within the next ten years then I think we would have done a very good job, but when we see the changes in the playing style and the type of players that we are developing in the next five to ten years that would already be a very big step forward. In the meantime, in football, today's results set the tone. This is a long-term process but we also have to look after tomorrow's short-term results because that's how it works in football.

For the short term, we have to create a situation where we are making progress and delivering results with our Joeys and the Young Socceroos. We have tried to have them play according to the starting points of the curriculum but that was very difficult, for example, at the Under-20 World Cup. The players tried to do that but they lacked the foundation and they were not brought up that way, so it was very difficult for them. Maybe we have to choose a more realistic approach with those national teams.

There's also still too big an emphasis on winning at all costs [at grassroots level], therefore not the most talented players are selected because maybe they are too small or maybe they are too playful and if the coaches are only looking at results they tend to select the strong players that can bring the short-term results.

Q. You've had some time now to look at Australia's future generation of Socceroos. How do you rate them?
A:
I have a worry there as the next generation [of players] is not developing quickly enough because they are not getting enough playing time in the A-League. I see too many players coming in from overseas that really do not add anything to the quality and the level of the A-League. I would simply prefer much more younger players being given the opportunity.

Q. Is that an indication that A-League coaches don't have much faith in Australia's younger stocks?
A:
Maybe they [the A-League coaches] are afraid to use them. I've been a coach for more than 25 years and as a coach you're being judged on the results and coaches tend to think they have more of a chance of getting results with older players, but I think in Australia we have quite good talented young players - 18, 19, 20 years of age - and where I come from, if you're good enough you're old enough. Players like [Arjen] Robben, [Robin] van Persie, [Rafael] van der Vaart and [Wesley] Sneijder were playing at the top professional level when they were 16 or 17 years; coaches used them because when you're good enough you're old enough. That should happen more here.

Q: Have you noticed a positive shift in attitude in the way Australia's younger players should be developed?
A:
Slowly. But we will continue to create the awareness of this, we will continue to develop programs and develop specialist youth coaches and we will continue explaining what the curriculum is about. I'm aware that this is a long-term process, but step-by-step we will continue on this path and go forward in this way.

We are a football development country, and that's really how it is. That's the message from the curriculum: to make people aware that we really have to change the way we approach, coach and develop football. Australia has produced many good players but there was not a structural approach in doing that. What we are looking for is a structural approach all over Australia in order to produce a much broader, structural pool of players coming through year-by-year and also changing the way the game is generally played in Australia. Here, it's still very much a long ball, second ball traditional type of game.

The outcome for us is not today to win with your U-13s team, the outcome for us is to produce more Harry Kewells and Tim Cahills in the future and players that can play the game that is played at the world's top level at the moment.

Q: Finally Han, what's needed for Australian football to take that next step up?
A:
If you really want to make a step up in football at the top level in Australia we need to produce another type of player, and not the type that is physically strong type of player that can play the long ball or second ball type of game. At international top level all the players are very skilful and it's a game of effective possession - a short passing game - and possession of the ball is of major importance, so you need to develop players that are capable of doing that.

We are also in the process of changing the content of the coaching courses so the message going out to the new breed of coaches will also be a different one. Then step-by-step with these coaches coming into the system we expect that these changes will become visible and the message will get down to grassroots level as well.

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