“I saw no growth in the time I was away from Australia.”
Marcelo Peña has had the benefit of experiencing a huge variety of football cultures during his playing and coaching career, and those experiences leave him somewhat disappointed with the lack of progress he has seen in the country he grew up in.
He grew up in the National Soccer League era, was in the country to experience qualification for a first World Cup in 30 years, and now returns to see Australian football still hamstrung by trivial issues.
“Qualifying for a World Cup doesn’t necessarily reflect the level of football you are playing at,” Peña tells Kick360. “It’s difficult to qualify, and to achieve it is amazing, but it doesn’t reflect the quality of the domestic game. There’s a big difference between the national team and the A-League, and then the NPL system which is effectively semi-professional.
“We’ve had 20 years of qualifying for World Cups and we’ve not seen any reflection of that in the facilities available, whether that be training fields or stadiums.”
Lack of facilities is a specific issue where Peña questions how Australia can be so far behind the rest of the world. The financial provisions for Australian football clubs and the tendencies of local governments to invest in other codes is something he finds incredibly frustrating.
“I thought I would return to more pitches to train on for youth teams, but I was surprised to see youth teams still having to share them, sometimes even four teams to a pitch.
“Indonesia and the rest of the Asian countries have all improved. They’ve invested in infrastructure and really put a lot of time into building stadiums. South America can be a bit slow to invest money, but they still have a good level of infrastructure and plenty of training fields.
“Clubs in Chile, Argentina and Brazil have pitches or spaces for all of their teams, whereas in Australia you’ll have a stadium and maybe a synthetic pitch, which everyone will train on.”
Pena identifies the lack of facilities as a problem for clubs outside of the A-League, but for the wider Australian football pyramid, his main concern is with the set-up of youth football and player development pathways.
“We need more coaches who want to work in youth football, because nowadays they don’t want to. They’re not paid enough, and they’re given poor facilities to work with, and they have players that are paying to play – they’re not being selected.
“If you’re a parent paying $5000 a year for your child to be at a football club, then you’ll expect them to play. It changes the level of competition because there’s very little selective process, and nowhere else in the world is it like this in youth football.”
Then there’s the coaching methods, which he believes are outdated and focus more on winning individual matches at age-group level than on player development.
“A club like Western Sydney Wanderers that does have plenty of pitches have the facilities to succeed, so long as their teams train properly under good coaches. It’s very difficult to get involved in Australian football because it’s the same guys that are running clubs and leagues.
“They’ve been involved for maybe 30 years, and I’ve got nothing against them, but they don’t have a vision to develop. We need more people like Nick Carle with what he’s doing at Southern Districts. His project is great, with a good structure in place and the club and a good model.”
Pena’s belief is that a concentrated focus on the individual players that will help them contribute as best they can to the team by meeting the demands of their position is what Australian coaches need to get back to.
“I don’t have a pill that Australian football can take to get the system to work. What I do know is that there needs to be more competition. The groups you are coaching, whether it be under-16s, 17s or 18s, you have to create an environment where they are competing against each other, and that can’t be done if someone’s paying to be there.
“The basic principles of the game have to be changed too. Players need to be taught that they have individual goals in their positions, and that trying to achieve those goals is more important than simply winning the match. No one wants to learn how to defend, how to block, how to jockey, how to anticipate an interception, and it’s these basic principles that need work.
“It’s something I think we’ve lost from when I was an academy player, because it was instilled within us that we had to have principles to develop, both in attack and in defence, along with our technical ability.
“Again, every other club in the world will have a game model, and I don’t see it in Australian clubs.”