In the city where gladiators once entertained the masses, a new hero was born.
Under the beaming lights of Rome’s Stadio Olimpico on a crisp winter’s evening, 18-year-old Australian Cristian Volpato helped rescue José Mourinho’s AS Roma after they trailed 2-0 at half-time to Hellas Verona in February. The mercurial attacking midfielder who hails from Camperdown in Sydney’s inner west kickstarted his team’s comeback with a sublime volley three minutes after emerging onto the pitch for just his second senior appearance.
Breaking former Leeds United and Liverpool star Harry Kewell’s record for the youngest Australian to score in a top-five European league, Volpato became an instant hit. Everyone wanted to learn about the prodigy who had been starring for Roma’s U-19 team in the competition that laid the foundation for maestros like Nicolò Zaniolo, Dejan Kulusevski and Juventus’ new $105m signing Dušan Vlahović.
However, not everything has been smooth sailing for Volpato in his career to date.
Cut from local A-League sides Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers, Volpato’s career was in limbo in early 2020. Clutching at a glimmer of hope that his dream could be revived, the youngster enlisted the help of Australasian Soccer Academy founder and technical director Tony Basha who allowed Volpato to achieve what he had always fantasised about – playing football overseas.
“The first time I saw him train, I was in awe of him. I was shocked how these guys let him go, the guy was a star,” said Basha in an exclusive interview with Kick360.
“He was a good kid, he never mucked around, he had a good attitude, strong work ethic…he was calling me at midnight to use the centre at the academy, the kid was a beast, he just wanted to train.”
Having recently returned home from a trip to Italy where he spent time with Volpato’s high-profile agent and AS Roma legend Francesco Totti, Basha sees Italy’s U-19 Primavera competition as a higher standard than Australia’s top tier and believes that young Australians need to develop an elite mentality to survive in the cut-throat environment of European football.
Now a mentor to Volpato, Basha’s persona largely matches that of the 18-year-old when he’s on the football pitch.
Confident and assertive yet never arrogant, he exudes an air of conviction which is particularly captivating and makes you want to believe in and listen to what he says. It is easy to see why he has had success with developing eight unwanted youngsters into professional footballers, including the Socceroos’ top goalscorer in 2021, Mitch Duke.
For Basha, these examples of talented youngsters being left to the waste side paint a beleaguered image of the state of coaching and youth development in Australia, whereby the country risks not reaching its full potential.
“Unfortunately, some people can’t see what I can see, I don’t know what it is. It’s a gift I suppose. I’m born with it. I can see talent,” he asserted.
“There’s no hiding it. We’ve got big problems in Australia in development. The biggest problem is from the age of 15, our coaching staff struggle to take them to the next level…it’s no secret why we don’t have many players in the top leagues in Europe.”
It’s hard to disagree with him.
As of today, alongside Volpato at Roma, the only Australians to have made competitive appearances in Europe’s top five leagues this season are Real Sociedad’s Maty Ryan and Eintracht Frankfurt’s Ajdin Hrustić. The general lack of quality in the national team is a large reason why the Socceroos face the possibility of missing their first FIFA World Cup since 2006 as the side failed to automatically qualify in Group B, consigning the Socceroos to grinding their way through two playoff games.
Put simply, Australia is desperate for a new wave of prodigies to lead the Socceroos and to steer the nation towards re-living some of the successes of the past 16 years. With this in mind, stories such as those of Volpato are particularly illuminative in terms of explaining the ills and vices of youth development in Australia according to Basha who argues that talented youngsters are walking away from football.
“I’ve had players better than Cristian that have fallen through the cracks,” he explained.
“They got turned off with Australian football…now they’re cleaners, plumbers and some are electricians. We’ve lost some good players.”
However, in the case of Volpato there is an added caveat of him being able to represent Italy at a senior level. Recently, the 18-year-old was called up to Italy’s U20 squad during the same period at which he was shunned from a potential Socceroos debut with manager Graham Arnold arguing that he’s not quite ready for a berth in the squad.
The fact that he is currently representing Italy at a junior level, in conjunction with that appearance also occurring at the same time as an Olyroos camp for European-based players suggests that Volpato is leaning towards representing Italy. However, his decision to accept the invitation from Italy’s U20 side must be placed in the broader context of what is better for his development.
It is difficult to argue against the notion that attending this camp – where he would be playing with and against better players – is more beneficial for him than attending the U23 Australia camp.
It is also easy to understand why some might believe Volpato is completely disillusioned with Australian football as he appeared to revel in the Socceroos defeat to Japan on his Snapchat platform where a photo of the scoreline was accompanied by a laughing emoji.
Basha has publicly stated that the image was “fake stuff” and a means of directing blame for the Socceroos plight on Volpato whose indecisiveness is beginning to bother Australian fans. Despite the ever-growing conjecture regarding Volpato’s selection of national team, Basha remains confident that his product will play for the Socceroos at a senior level.
“I’m just trying to build Australian football, trying to make it stronger…I told Cristian you’re an Aussie boy, I want you to play for Australia, I don’t want you to play for Italy,” he said.
“Mourinho didn’t care where he played but he said follow your heart.
“His heart is with Australia and I know it, he’s a proud Aussie boy.
“I haven’t spoken to [Graham] Arnold myself but I know he’s rang Cristian and spoke to him. They have made contact with Cristian, I’m 100% sure about that.”
If it were Basha’s choice, he would consider capping Volpato for Australia’s World Cup qualifying matches, citing his unique technical ability as a departure from the norm among Australian players.
“My advice would be, maybe you do throw that kid in there in a game, put him in, tell him to go there and play his game because the kid can do something from nothing and that’s what we lack,” he said.
“He’s gonna beat a player – the problem we have with our players and the guys in the Socceroos is that they cannot beat a player 1 on 1…if you see Japan they’re obviously very comfortable [on the ball], they can skip past an opponent, they’re sharp, they’re smart, they’re intelligent and unfortunately we lack that.”
Aside from the potentially catastrophic issue of Volpato following the trend set by Italian youth players and playing for the senior national team within a few years, it is also suspected that no Australian clubs received a transfer or compensation fee from Volpato’s move to Roma.
This harsh reality amplifies the holistic pain of his rejection from both Sydney and Western Sydney Wanderers given that elusive transfer fees are now on reward for clubs who produce and give opportunities to youth. Therefore, despite their oversight in the case of Volpato, A-League clubs now have a financial incentive to ensure that they get these decisions correct more often than not.
Melbourne City has been Australia’s singular paragon in this respect as they accrued over $2.5m from the transfers of Aaron Mooy and Daniel Arzani to City Football Group counterparts Manchester City. More recently, the club built its Championship and Premiership success from a core of young Australians including Nathaniel Atkinson and Connor Metcalfe with the former earning City a transfer fee from Scottish side Heart of Midlothian, while the latter is set to earn them a pretty penny when his move to FC St Pauli is codified at season’s end.
It is difficult to quantify whether Volpato would have earned a move overseas had he not been cut from the Australian system, however, this wave of talent now emerging from the A-League suggests that the country is well placed to develop stars of the future. This came to the fore in Tokyo during the Olympics where the likes of Cam Devlin, Denis Genreau and Joel King headlined an array of A-League youngsters handed opportunities at overseas clubs in the months following the tournament.
These moves are the product of Australian clubs effectuating concrete change in the way they approach youth development, in terms of providing both first-team opportunities and access to an elite training environment.
In this sense, Volpato’s disillusionment with Australian football is more demonstrative of a singular misjudgement of ability, rather than representing a holistic failure to coach and develop young players according to Luke Casserly.
“There’s a multitude of factors why clubs would retain or not retain a player, and it’s not new, [it happened to] some of the best players we’ve ever had…Tim Cahill didn’t get selected at Sydney Olympic and went on to have an incredible career,” said Football Australia’s former Head of National Performance.
“It’s very difficult to say ‘this happened to one player, so then what’s wrong with the whole system’? That’s not to say the system can’t be improved. People will make decisions and I think all coaches would turn around and say ‘I got that one wrong or I’m really pleased he or she has kicked on and is doing great’.”
Instead, Casserly believes that the recent plight of the Socceroos can be explained by the transition from the National Soccer League to the A-League as Australia’s premier footballing competition, a change which Casserly argues resulted in a “10 to 12-year gap” where the new and largely under-resourced A-League clubs struggled to provide enough opportunities to talented youth.
As such, Australia’s professional clubs are only now beginning to reap the rewards of the development pathways and elite academies that have been established since this transition occurred in 2004.
“Now with the introduction of the A-League academies…a good chunk of our most talented young players are getting opportunities in the A League and at foreign clubs,” he said.
“We’re now starting to see the likes of Riley McGree come through and get sold off, Genreau come through and get sold off, Metcalfe, Atkinson, now they’re all coming through.
“At least now, there’s a system under the pro clubs which didn’t exist for a long time which was either an oversight as the focus was solely on the professional league, a resource issue or just simply not a priority for the clubs when the A League started.”
While Cristian Volpato might represent an extreme case of the system failing an individual, giant strides have been made in the realms of Australia’s youth development. With refinements to the country’s footballing pyramid imminent in the near future, one could expect the Socceroos to swiftly rebound from a low ebb as a new array of talents look to restore the national team to its former glory.