Quite a few notable things happened in Australian junior international football in recent weeks, not the least being there actually were enough men's and women's junior sides in action to mean the statement "quite a few" is non-hyperbolic in nature.
Last weekend, Australia's under-23 men's side secured a third-place finish in their first appearance at the Maurice Revello Tournament, defeating France 2-0 through first-half goals from Jake Hollman and Louis D'Arrigo. There is no tangible reward for finishing third in the tournament -- the prestigious nature of the event's history and its ability to attract top youth teams from around the world are its main claims to fame -- but it was still an important exercise for the Olyroos, both from a practical team perspective and on an individual level.
Ahead of their quest to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris under the guidance of Socceroos legend Tony Vidmar, the Olyroos have been provided an important reference point of their abilities against their peers on a global level, and, pleasingly for both the prognosis of that campaign and longer-term national careers, the players demonstrated they had a foundation to build upon.
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Vidmar has gleaned an important insight into the character and profiles of the squad that will be at his disposal in the years ahead -- information that will inevitably be fed upwards to Graham Arnold when it comes to assessing Socceroos bonafides -- as well as, hopefully, how to best deploy and utilise them to get the most out of them; the selections, setup and game management in the semifinal defeat by eventual champions Panama providing just as important lessons as did the wins over Mexico and France.
In addition, five games against the divergent styles and predilections of a range of opponents from the Middle East, Central America and Europe will hold the side in good stead. The French side that the Olyroos beat in the third-place playoff, in particular, provided not only an insight into the type of well-credentialled opponents that Australia don't regularly face but also presented an opportunity for the players to test themselves against the likes of Lille's Leny Yoro; Warren Zaire-Emery, who logged 31 appearances across all competitions for Paris Saint-Germain this season; and Mathys Tel, who scored five goals in 22 appearances for Bayern Munich during their Bundesliga-winning campaign, as well as making five appearances in the Champions League.
Given the event previously known as the Toulon Tournament -- it was renamed after tournament founder Maurice Revello after he died in 2016 -- attracts scouts from around the world to observe the young talent, who knows where they could go. Standouts such as Cameron Peupion and Garang Kuol appear relatively set at clubland in the near term, signed with Premier League clubs Brighton & Hove Albion and Newcastle United respectively, those such as D'Arrigo, Ryan Teague and Noah Botic may have played their way into a greater shop window.
Elsewhere, Australia's Joeys, working under Brad Maloney, are competing at the Under-17 Asian Cup in Thailand: They lost 2-0 to Saudi Arabia in their opening game of the tournament before bouncing back to record a madcap 5-3 win over China in their second -- with Adelaide United sensation Nestory Irankunda playing a starring role, and team captain Anthony Pavlesic confirming his transfer to Bayern Munich before kickoff.
As incredulous as it might sound, a big tournament was needed from Irankunda. Already a game-changing force in the A-League Men's at just 17, and subject to interest from some of the biggest clubs in world football, Irankunda was expected to carry the weight of attacking production for this team, as well as start and run out games, rather than coming off the bench and letting loose against tired defensive legs. How he performed under such circumstances, especially against the reliable reference point of his age group would be revealing, not just for Socceroos boss Graham Arnold, but also any scouts in attendance.
NESTORY IRANKUNDA WITH AN ABSOLUTE HOWITZER!!!!— 10 Football (@10FootballAU) June 19, 2023
Clear a runway for this kid, as the backflips are spinning from the @AdelaideUnited wunderkind!!
Australia's Joeys leads China 3-1 in the #AFCU17's.
Watch now on 10 Play!! https://t.co/GV7cmzACeA @FootballAUS #CHNvAUS pic.twitter.com/ymeEuIdRqz
Two games in, and the Joeys face Tajikistan on Thursday with progression to the second round on the line. Reach the semifinals, and Australia are off to the 2023 FIFA Under-17 World Cup.
But that's not all. Earlier this month, an under-18 side led by Young Socceroos coach Trevor Morgan took part in the FPF Portugal Sub-18 tournament in Lisbon, pushing European powers Portugal and England in their opening two games -- the latter required a last-gasp winner -- before grabbing a 2-1 win over Norway to end their tour on a high.
On the women's side of the equation, Leah Blayney's Young Matildas continued their undefeated qualification campaign for the 2024 Under-20 Women's Asian Cup by defeating Vietnam, Iran and Lebanon, maintaining a record that hasn't seen them concede a goal during qualifiers. Given the level of competition, this should perhaps have been expected, but there is nonetheless something to be said for beating the sides put ahead of you. Rae Dower's Junior Matildas, meanwhile, traveled to South Korea for a two-game series -- recording a 1-1 draw and a 3-1 win. In September, they will play Bangladesh, Vietnam and the Philippines -- games they will be expected to win quite comfortably -- for the right to play in the AFC Under-17 Women's Asian Cup in Indonesia in 2024.
And while they're not junior national sides, the Socceroos traveled to China to take on world champions Argentina in a friendly, and the Matildas headed into a pre-Women's World Cup training camp ahead of Tony Gustavsson naming his final 23-player squad in early July.
So, yes, it's been a busy month for Australia's international footballers of all ages.
There's still room for improvement, of course, but the past months represent important progress on the Australian game's ability to provide the young players -- the players who have always existed - with the opportunities they need to maximise their talents.
Greater junior international opportunities were something that Football Australia acknowledged as a critical area in need of improvement in its men's and women's performance gap reports released in 2020; the former report examined the divergence that saw the Young Socceroos play just eight matches (only three against national teams) compared with the 18 of Asian rivals Japan in 2018, and the latter found that Australia fielded the fewest number of junior women's and girls' national teams, and played the fewest games, among 12 comparative nations from 2016 to 2020.
Now, with the organisation making no secret of its strong financial position in recent years -- a combination of a Matildas-driven boon in corporate investment and shedding the operating costs of the A-Leagues, providing some of the reasoning -- the needed investment in junior national teams is beginning to flow. Assuming funding continues, the benefits won't, in all likelihood, be felt properly for at least another half-decade or so -- like most structural endeavours in junior development. But, in concert with APL chief executive Danny Townsend telling ESPN that the organisation was committed to returning its youth competition next season, it's a puzzle piece being inserted into the collective that is Australian youth development.
Across the past month, again, Australia's teams have shown that the kids are alright. They've always been good, but too many cohorts weren't provided with the opportunities to demonstrate it and were then lazily blamed for the eminently foreseeable ramifications of that. Here's to that no longer being the case.