Australia will be looking to make a mark on their return to the FIFA U-17 World Cup next month in Mexico, after an absence of six years. The Joeys, as Australia’s youngest national team are known, were virtually a perennial fixture at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, appearing in every tournament, bar one, up until 2005. Invariably they did far more than make up the numbers and Brazil needed a penalty shoot-out to edge past the Joeys in the 1999 final.

Now, six years on from Peru 2005 where they made a meek first-round exit, the team from Down Under are back. Under Dutchman Jan Versleijen, who has coached at club level in the Netherlands, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as well as the national U-17 and U-23 teams in his native land, the Aussies are seeking to clamber to new heights using a fresh approach.

The tell-tale signs were there as Versleijen led the Australia U-20s at Egypt 2009, where the team played a possession-based passing game, setting-up in a classic Dutch 4-3-3 formation. But it is now, three years into his tenure as Australia national youth coach, that Versleijen hopes to see his plans bear fruit, starting with Mexico 2011.

Improving the production line
The majority of the team that takes to the field in Group F against Côte d'Ivoire, Brazil and Denmark will hail from the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). The AIS in Canberra has long been a key cog in Australia’s talent production line with the likes of Mark Viduka, Brett Emerton, Lucas Neil, Mark Bresciano, Josh Kennedy and Vince Grella among its many alumni. The difference since Versleijen arrived in the nation’s capital is that the live-in AIS programme now caters for a younger group of players preparing for the FIFA U-17 World Cup.

“It is a crucial stage of their development if players come in at 14 or 15 and I think that is the most important age to begin moulding players,” stated Versleijen, who believes the intake of younger players is already paying off. “Since joining Asia we had not been able to qualify for the U-17 World Cup. With lowering the age intake of players at the AIS, players have a better chance to prepare for qualifiers, as happened in Uzbekistan last year [qualifying tournament], and also the World Cup itself. This success proves the new system has been successful after qualifying for the first time in six years.”

This success proves the new system has been successful after qualifying for the first time in six years.

Jan Versleijen, Australia U-17s coach

There is evidence too that the overall development pathway is improved after the players complete their scholarship at the AIS. In the last two years 20 players from the AIS have progressed to the A-League and signed professional contracts. Last year seven players aged 17 made their professional debut in Australia’s national competition.

Squad cohesion
Versleijen has a core group of around 20 players at the AIS with another dozen or so in contention for the Mexico squad either based overseas, or from elsewhere in Australia. For all the positives that comes with a squad based together in a camp environment, Versleijen has conversely had limited opportunity to work with his overseas-based players. Nonetheless, the Dutchman doesn’t believe cohesion will be a problem come the opening match against Côte d'Ivoire in Guadalajara on 20 June.

“In a normal situation players come from anywhere and everywhere and the team has to be built from scratch,” says the Venlo native. “In this situation we have the basics with the AIS boys playing and training for a long time together, and we only have to fit in the extra quality. The challenge is to communicate with the same football language that we have been working on with the AIS boys. For me as a coach it is about trying to add quality in certain positions.”

The Dutch flavour in Australian football since 2005 has been significant, commencing with Guus Hiddink and assistant Johan Neeskens, as the Socceroos ended a 32-year absence from the FIFA World Cup™. Pim Verbeek and his assistant, Henk Duut, repeated the feat four years later, while current technical director Han Berger replaced another countryman in Rob Baan. It seems that the Australian sporting spirit and Dutch football traditions are a potent and agreeable mix.

“It was very noticeable as soon as I arrived in Australia,” says Versleijen when asked what attributes appealed in the average Australian player. “I really liked the players’ commitment, fighting spirit, their willingness to win games and these are great attributes for any coach.

“I think what has been added is a little more technical work and a lot more tactical work. We have really worked hard on playing the game from the back, we really work hard on combination football and we really work hard on trying to dominate with the ball. So not just to defend our goal, but to try and take the initiative and I think that’s what has changed in the last three years.”