On Saturday, Young Socceroos Head Coach Ante Milicic named his 25-player squad for this month’s AFC U19 Championships.
Featuring proven A-League performers such as Nathaniel Atkinson and internationally based players in the vein of John Iredale and Ben Folami, much is riding on the shoulders of the young men entrusted with pulling on the Green and Gold jersey.
Milicic’s side will take the field on 19 October against familiar foes South Korea knowing that progression to the semi-finals in Indonesia is vital, with only the last four sides remaining in the 16-team tournament punching their tickets to the U20 World Cup in Poland in 2019.
Australia hasn’t qualified for the world’s premier junior showcase since 2013, when a squad that included names such as Jamie Maclaren, Josh Brilliante, Paul Izzo, Daniel De Silva and Adam Taggart was eliminated in the tournament’s group stages.
For Western Sydney Wanderers defender Tass Mourdoukoutas, one of the 25 selected for the Indonesian mission, the prospect of representing his country in pursuit of World Cup qualification is one that will never lose its lustre.
“It’s always a great experience representing the Young Socceroos, all the players enjoy it,” Mourdoukoutas told dailyfootballshow.com.
“As much as you love your club and the training and the routine and helping out your teammates at your clubland, it’s always an honour to represent that national team.
“This is a big opportunity – the AFC U19 Championship – there’s a lot of quality players from other countries there.
“We have a good group and we’re confident we can go all the way and win it and achieve our goal of qualifying for the U20 World Cup in May next year. It’ll be a great experience.”
A number of the Young Socceroos – Mourdoukoutas not among them – were part of a select U18 squad that took part in the SBS Cup in August, a tournament derailed by a bug that swept through the side during the three games.
Further preparations for Indonesia have mainly centred around training camps, the Young Socceroos convening on the Central Coast in September for a camp in September and on the Sunshine Coast this past week before jetting off to Indonesia.
Approaching the conclusion of an A-League offseason that sometimes feels endless – a period in which young players such as Mourdoukoutas are forced to juggle representing their clubs in their local NPL leagues while simultaneously looking to impress in senior preseason training – one could be forgiven for thinking that junior international duty would be pushed to the back of a youngster’s mind.
Mourdoukoutas, however, says that playing with the national side never strays far from his consciousness.
“There’s a lot of months of preparation, it’s not all rolled into one week,” he explains.
“It’s definitely a lot of preparation. Not necessarily notes, he’s (Milicic) not giving us notes, but it’s giving his experience.
“He’s been a coach at the top level, he’s been to World Cups, he’s played at the top level and he knows what to expect, he knows what different nations are like.
“He’s watched footage and so have we. We’re fully prepared going into South Korea, for Jordan, for Vietnam, whoever we face, we’ll be ready.
“(Contact between the players and coaching staff) it’s far more frequent then you’d imagine. They always like to keep tabs on you.
“Almost every day there’s someone interested in your data, how you’re feeling, any injuries, any stress, whether you’re playing, whether you’re not playing, how many minutes… every day someone is monitoring you.
“There are the camps kind of loosely every few months that go for around a week or so. These camps are good because the squad gets to come together and really engage and build some team chemistry in the lead into big tournaments such as this one.”
Young players have been making their mark on the Socceroos setup in recent times.
A barnstorming second half of the A-League season from then Melbourne City starlet Daniel Arzani resulted in a World Cup call-up and move to Celtic by way of Manchester City.
Denis Genreau and Iredale turned good form with their sides in the Netherlands to earn a call-up to Graham Arnold’s first training camp as senior boss of the Socceroos, with Genreau going on to earn a call-up to the Socceroos squad for their upcoming camp and friendly against Kuwait.
With both Arzani and Genreau playing a part in Australia’s AFC U19 Championship qualifiers against North Korea and Hong Kong as recently as November 2017, their rapid ascension hasn’t been missed by the young players that they came up alongside.
“Ante has told us many times,” Mourdoukoutas said.
“Especially recently at this training camp, he said ‘things change in football for the good and the bad, so you have to fight every day for this tracksuit that you’re wearing because there are no contracts with the national team. You play, and you get selected because you earn it. You’re always on watch.’
“I played with Daniel (Arzani) and Denny (Denis Genreau) and John Iredale and these players, they’re talented footballers.
“They’ve strung some good performances together, done well overseas and whatnot. Not even a few years ago they were, probably not even a year ago, they were nowhere near contention and now they’re fighting for spots in that Socceroos setup, which they fully deserve.
“Things can change so quickly.”
Growing up in the southern Sydney suburb of Sylvania Waters, Mourdoukoutas played with the Football NSW Institute before making the switch to NSW NPL side Sydney Olympic 2016.
Mourdoukoutas spent a year with the traditional NPL powerhouses before making the switch to Western Sydney Wanderers in 2017, forming a part of the defence that guided the Red and Black to the 2017-18 Y-League championship.
That year spent surrounded by fully grown men in one of Australia’s best competitions outside of the A-League, according to Mourdoukoutas, steeled him for the rigours that come with trying to break into Wanderers squad as a young player.
“I think that playing in the first grade with Olympic – who I have to add did really well this season, they won the NPL so congrats to them – I think 100% it prepared me for men’s football,” he said
“It’s very different playing at a high level of football compared to the second division of Australian football, but it’s in the men’s so I think it definitely prepared me physically. And then mentally it taught me respect.
“There were older players who have played for Olympic for as long as I’ve been playing altogether and just little things they did prepare you to move into an A-League club.
“There was a couple of players (that mentored Mourdoukoutas).
“A few had A-League experience, a couple had been overseas. Hagi Gligor has played for Sydney FC and the Young Socceroos and he’s a quality player, one of the best players I’ve played with.
“Max Burgess as well, he’s a quality player. Obviously, Paul Henderson as well, he’s a veteran of the club and he’s had a great established career. There’s a number of boys I could list off, they’re all great lads but they were the main ones.”
Following this months AFC U19 Championships, Mourdoukoutas thoughts will turn to securing a spot in the Wanderers first team setup.
After making his debut in a 1-1 draw against the Wellington Phoenix in Round 16 of 2017-18 season, the young defender says that he’s enjoying preseason under new Wanderers boss Markus Babel – he started the Wanderers Round of 32 clash with Hellenic Athletic – and is eagerly anticipating the upcoming A-League campaign.
“Markus is great,” he says.
“He’s a great manager, he was a CB himself so he knows what to expect from his players.
“He’s a great guy, he’s firm, he knows what he wants but he was a good kind of changeup.
“The boys got around him when he came in and we’re really happy to have him there. I’m enjoying preseason so far and looking forward to the season to start.
“Broadly, I’d like to play as many games as I can in the A-League and first and foremost make my starting debut.
“I’d like to have a good, comfortable year where I’m learning a lot. I’m kind of setting myself into the team and becoming comfortable with all the players and just improving day by day and making my mark in the first team and in the A-League.
“At the end of the day, every player wants to give their all and get noticed for playing well. Improve every day, that’s the goal.”