Take a look at the history of the Golden Ball award at the U20 World Cup and the quality of some of its winners immediately leaps off the page.
Most recently won by highly-rated South Korea and Valencia winger Lee Kang-In, past recipients of the U20 World Cup best player award include Dominic Solanke, Paul Pogba, Sergio Agüero and the irrepressible Lionel Messi.
With football’s U17 level too early to provide a definitive insight into future footballing potential and U23 level football occurring at a time when, arguably, players should be pushing for regular senior national side minutes, it is this U20 age level that provides the most critical proving ground for the next generation of footballing talent.
Unfortunately for Australia, the U20 World Cup stage is one that its Young Socceroos have been absent from for the past three iterations; the side last qualifying for the 2013 tournament in Turkey.
Placed in charge reversing that trend is Gary van Egmond, who was in charge of the Young Matildas as well as an assistant with senior Matilda side before he moved across to the Young Socceroos post in June.
Van Egmond got his first look at his new charges in a five-day, 30-player training camp in Canberra in late July before 22 players (goalkeeper Kai Calderbank-Park missed the training camp thanks to commitments with club side Burnley but met up with the squad at the Championships) continued onwards to Vietnam for the AFF U18 Championships.
Australia has won its opening three games at that tournament – defeating Cambodia 5-1, Vietnam 4-1 and Thailand 3-1 – and van Egmond, despite his side not dominating games to the extent that the scorelines would suggest, says he is happy with the base technical level displayed by Australia’s youth since his arrival.
“I think, technically, there are some very good players,” van Egmond told dailyfootballshow.com from Vietnam.
“In the front third we have a lot of players who have some x-factor. So that’s a nice thing that you’re always able to create opportunities for scoring goals. Midfield wise, again, we’ve got some good players and defensively we’re solid.
“So, overall, okay.
“But if the environment that they’re training in were consistently higher and if they were to have more games this group would be further along again.
“From the perspective of what their training environments are back home, we probably need to, and I think Rob Sherman was quoted in an article the other day about that, we have plenty of work to do in these areas to try and improve.
“But what they have as individuals is very good.”
In another interview, this time with Dominic Bossi in the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Technical Director Rob Sherman has said that there was an “imminent danger” of the Socceroos failing to qualify for senior World Cups thanks to the dearth of young talent coming through the Australian system.
With there currently only ten professional clubs operating within Australia – soon to be eleven with the introduction of Macarthur FC during the 2020/21 season – and no national second division currently in place, a lack of destinations means that opportunities for young players to receive much-needed senior minutes are few and far between.
For the vast majority of young players, their games predominantly come in the eight-game Y-League season (nine if their side makes the final) and their local NPL competitions.
However, players on the cusp of A-League selection frequently find themselves absent from those games as well; either called up as a training player with the A-League side before being sent back down without playing a game or travelling with the A-League side as part of the extended squad, more often than not eventually watching on from the stands.
A prime example of this phenomenon was James Delianov.
The former Melbourne City and now Western United custodian, despite being the first choice for the Young Socceroos and a member of training camps with the Olyroos, played in just eight competitive games from the beginning of the 2018-19 Y-League season in November to his departure from City in May.
The struggles the Australian game has in providing opportunities for young players recently led the FFA to set up a Sherman-led review of the pathways on offer in June.
“You’ve got to look at the competition that the boys are in on a week-to-week basis and how many games they can play through a year,” van Egmond explained.
“From the NYL, there’s not a great deal of games in that. And then, what level are they playing from an NPL to an NPL2 level? And how many opportunities do they get in that and how many games do they get to play?
“So, I think the competition is definitely one. And that’s not even in what they’re doing now, that’s obviously from when they were younger and looking to come up.
“(However), the competition can actually be a hindrance; so instead of making it so explicit from a younger age, they still need to be enjoying the game and falling in love with the game and all of those areas that are so important to these players coming through.
“But there’s also a perspective of these young players being in a position where they are competing, and the competition is high, which will allow their development to accelerate a little quicker.
“When they come into international football it’s a huge spike for them. We want to minimize that spike. That’s the challenge of the pathway and for the FFA to see how we can work with the academies and with other centralized programs.”