Dual Socceroos/Olyroos Head Coach Graham Arnold has issued a stark warning to Australian football: it needs to give young players somewhere to play or risk losing them forever.
Arnold’s Olyroos ended a 12-year absence from the Olympics by recording a 1-0 win over Uzbekistan in the early hours of Sunday morning, Nick D’Agostino’s 47th-minute strike proving enough to secure the AFC’s third and final spot at the Games of the XXXII Olympiad on offer.
At a base level, the securement of passage to Tokyo represents a goal achieved for the Olyroos – one that the players involved can be proud of.
With little preparation time, a number of key players either missing or suspended, rapid turnarounds and oppressive conditions to contend with, Arnold's side demonstrated ability to grind out results and succeed where other sides have failed.
They will now get a chance to earn the title of Olympic Athlete - a label that only an elite few athletes will ever achieve and marker that carries with it millennia of historical significance.
But whether the hard-fought results won in Thailand are able to be replicated against better quality opposition on a grander stage is a debatable matter – was qualification for the Olympics the goal or just one step on a road to an Olympic medal?
Is the goal of the Olyroos to win? Or is it to play good football?
For while qualification was achieved, the nature of the accomplishment still left room for improvement.
Despite losing just a single game all tournament, Australia couldn’t be said to have come close to dominating, or even controlling, any game in Thailand over the past month.
The only moments where the Olyroos seemed to be taking a game on by the scruff of the neck arrived in the second half of their fixture against the host nation and in extra-time against Syria – two occasions in which the opposition had clearly run out of petrol.
As has become somewhat of a theme for Australian sides in international competition, a lack of penetration, composure and creativity in the attack led to a dearth of clear-cut goalscoring opportunities throughout the tournament – and there was frequent trepidation when players were forced to act in the face of an opposition press.
Eventually, a comprehensive 2-0 outclassing at the hands of South Korea in the semi-finals demonstrated just what gap exists between the Olyroos and Asia’s finest.
Making matters difficult for the 23-player squad in Thailand before a ball had even been kicked was, especially when compared to that of their rival nations, the lack of minutes afforded to young players within the current Australian setup.
Whereas established powers such as the Koreans are able to call up youngsters that are frequent contributors on the domestic front, the contributions that Australia’s best and brightest U23 players make at clubland can charitably be described as sporadic.
It’s a lack of minutes that not only denies youngsters developmental opportunities in the most valuable training environment – that of a live game – but also creates a self-perpetuating cycle of youngster's skills and instincts being blunted by a lack of game time and them subsequently then not receiving A-League minutes because of their blunt skills and instincts.
Speaking to journalists via a phone hook-up on Sunday afternoon, Arnold, as he has done on numerous occasions since taking on Olyroos responsibilities, bemoaned a lack of playing opportunities for young players and the challenges it created for them both physically and mentally.
“I showed the boys last night after the game when we got back to the hotel,” Arnold began.
“I showed them a two- or three-minute documentary on Aaron Mooy and his career. When he was 21-22, he didn't play at the Olympics, he wasn't playing overseas in Scotland, he came back to the Wanderers and look where he is today.
“It's all about playing and if you don't play at this age group, your career will be over within a very quick and a very short time.