Football Australia’s plan for national youth teams disrupted by COVID

Full story first published for SBS’ The World Game:

With COVID-19 fears sowing an uncertain landscape for junior internationals – including two tournaments set to be staged in Australia – Australian interim-national technical director Trevor Morgan has preached flexibility in fostering the next generation of Socceroos and Matildas.

Due to the chaos wrought by the pandemic, Australia’s junior national sides were effectively sidelined for the whole of 2020 and, unfortunately for Australia’s generation next, the ongoing uncertainty around the globe seems set to continue to frustrate their opportunities to pull on the Green and Gold in 2021.

Earmarked to be hosted in the Australian regional centres of Shepparton and Cessnock, respectively, a group of 2022 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U20 Women’s Asian Cup round one qualifiers and a group of 2022 AFC U17 Women’s Asian Cup round one qualifiers had been scheduled for March and April.

Though still waiting for official word from the AFC, Football Australia sources are confident that those tournaments won’t be cancelled due to COVID but, instead, postponed to later in the year.

Such a change may work in Australia’s favour, though, given the current quarantine restrictions that exist upon entry to the country.

Citing the pandemic, the Bureau of the FIFA Council announced the cancellation of the 2021 Men’s U20 World Cup and Boy’s U17 World Cup on Christmas Eve, awarding host nations Indonesia and Peru the rights to the 2023 iterations in their place.

Nominally, the AFC Championships for those age groups are still pressing forward – the U19 version set to kick off on March 3 in Uzbekistan per the federation’s most recent official statements – however, sources have cast significant doubt on that tournament going ahead at that date, if at all.

The same goes for any attempted early-year staging of the U16 iteration, which the AFC has yet to officially re-schedule.

Adding further frustration, on Friday reports emerged that the Japanese government had determined that the Tokyo Olympics – which both the Matildas and Olyroos have qualified for – will have to be cancelled because of the coronavirus.

The Japanese government and International Olympic Committee has since strongly denied the reports.

The Young Matildas’ most recent continental matches came at the 2019 AFC U19 Women’s Championship, where they advanced to the second round of the tournament before suffering heavy, back to back defeats against Japan and South Korea.

The Junior Matildas also qualified for the knockout stages of the 2019 AFC U16 Women’s Championship in Thailand before suffering closer defeats at the hands of North Korea and China PR.

The Young Socceroos’ and Joey’s (of whom Morgan also serves as coach of) last continental hitouts arrived during their successful qualification for the subsequently postponed 2020 AFC U19 Championship and 2020 AFC U16 Championship.

The Young Socceroos also played a series of friendlies against European club academy sides in early 2020.

After a near 12-month break that followed Olympic qualification, Graham Arnold’s Olyroos most recently fielded a domestic-based squad for a nine day camp in Sydney that was accompanied by friendlies against Sydney FC and Macarthur FC.

The ongoing saga has Morgan, who was named to his interim-TD post in August of last year, emphasising a focus on what Football Australia can do, not what it can’t, in the current landscape and adopting an approach that will allow Australia’s next generation to bounce back once the burdens of the pandemic lessen.

“Domestically, we’re looking at utilizing the elite game’s process and trying to refine that process to make it even better,” Morgan told SBS The World Game.

“There’s some modelling going on at Football Australia about how we can create short national team activity within our borders that avoids taking players away from club football as well. We’d try to fit things in at mid-week as much as possible in 2021.

“[We’d] keep players ready and try and prepare several age groups so we can springboard forward.

“Once vaccines come into place and things become safer we might be in a position where we have identified a lot of talent and we incidentally get invited to a tournament and things are safe and we’re ready to go.

“Our idea is readiness; opportunities for the players and utilising the elite games where you play in your member federation and then potentially we could do a larger version of that nationally, within our borders and then be ready to springboard forward with all our junior national teams.”

The interim-TD, in particular, is bullish about the outlook for the Young and Junior Matildas; pointing to the increasing number of opportunities that were being given to young players in the W-League as a reason to get excited about what’s to come.

“We’re watching on a weekly basis,” he explained. “We get a printout every week of the number of girls under the age of 20 and their match minutes so we can discuss their progress and we’ve had weekly meetings of the women’s performance pathway group.

“It’s really positive. A lot of great things are happening in clubland and we’re looking to do more and more for the girls in this country to prepare greater depth for the Matildas’ team.”

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