As Socceroos ponder potential World Cup absence, high cost for parents hurts next generation

Adisu Bayew is one of Australia’s most promising footballers, who this season scored his first A-League Men’s goal for Western United and debuted for the Olyroos.

But for a code staring at the possibility of a World Cup absence this year and wondering what must be done to improve the quality of the next generation, Bayew represents something more significant.

In a sport that charges parents of promising teenagers upwards of $1,000 per season, Bayew and his peers in Western Melbourne are bucking the trend.

The 20-year-old has been part of the program at Football Empowerment, a community organization in Melbourne set up to find professional opportunities for those whose parents can’t afford to push them through expensive club academies.

Tom Yabio, managing director of the not-for-profit which relies on local and state government grants, said he and his team set up the organization in 2016 after realizing many promising players in Western Melbourne weren’t playing in the usually expensive junior National Premier League (NPL) system.

“Costs limit the players playing at National Premier League clubs, creating a barrier for participation, and players will drop out of the elite pathway,” he said.

A Socceroos coach stands with his hands on hips looking out at the field during a World Cup qualifier.
Socceroos coach Graham Arnold must help his team overcome poor form against the UAE in the World Cup playoff next month.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

Cost of playing

The pain associated with the high cost of playing football is felt most acutely by parents. But not far behind are the administrators at Football Australia.

The 2020 report “Eleven Principles for the Future of Australian Football” found cost was seen as a barrier to entry, and high elite fees may be caused by a range of factors including payments to senior players at clubs, and duplication and inefficiencies across the layered administration of the game.

It estimated two thirds of registration fees remain with clubs, and are not channeled up the football pyramid.

Yabio has found anecdotally that while some Victorian clubs charge up to $2,500 for kids as young as six to be part of elite training programs, talented AFL prospects at an equivalent development level pay roughly $600.

Those figures are supported by Football Australia’s research, which finds community football can generally cost up to $800 per season, and elite NPL programs go above that — although they may offer a 40-week calendar and training up to four nights per week.

The Eleven Principles report recommended an objective assessment on the cost of playing football in Australia be carried out, but Football Australia this week wasn’t yet in a position to discuss when that might be released.

making changes

The governing body is pushing along with other reforms in the meantime. It has established a club licensing scheme to improve governance at the higher levels of the game.

It’s also pushing ahead with a plan to remove domestic transfer fee caps, which promises to provide additional revenue for state league clubs who most heavily rely on registration fees.

But the players’ union feels Football Australia’s tinkering with the transfer system is too hasty, given it’s likely to create a new barrier for players to move from NPL to A-League Men level.

“If we are going to bring in reforms, the onus is on individuals and the entire game, to do the work, to do the modelling, to understand the impact that it’s going to have,” said Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) co- CEO Beau Busch.

The PFA argues it’s unjustified to provide a new revenue stream for clubs, when it’s parents who have been paying for their children’s junior development costs. And it feels uncomfortable no such tweak is being brought in for the women’s game.

The reforms are also ignoring what Busch believes is the biggest impediment to both player development and growth of the game: the cost of playing.

Sale United Football Club 'miniroo' players and their coaches
The football community wants to ensure young players aren’t lost to the game.(By ABC Gippsland: Kellie Lazzaro)

“The game can’t thrive if people can’t access it,” Busch said, describing affordable football as “foundational.”

“If we can’t ensure that’s the case, then the sport will be poorer for it and we won’t be able to not only have thriving national teams and be able to compete internationally, we won’t have have people who can fall deeply in love with it and connect the sport if they can’t even access it.”

breaking through

Bayew is one of a handful of players emerging in the A-League with links to Football Empowerment, including Western United clubmate Ajak Deu.

Yabio’s organization assists players who don’t secure a highly coveted, fully subsidized A-League academy place. It provide them with free training, off-field workshops and trial match opportunities against A-League academy sides.

In one of those matches in December 2019, Bayew impressed against an Adelaide United junior team that included boom youngster Mohamed Toure.

Two footballers in white jerseys close in on one in a red jersey
Adisu Bayew (left) playing against Adelaide United’s Mohamed Toure (centre) in a trial match in 2019.(Supplied)

“We’ve known Adisu since since he was 15 years old, he was a very talented kid, but with limited opportunities [to showcase himself] for the A-League sides,” Yabio said.

Bayew played junior football at local club Caroline Springs George Cross. Yabio recalled Bayew was part of Football Empowerment as the teenager graduated from the junior grades at NPL club Green Gully. He earned a scholarship and promotion to the seniors in 2018 before he signed with Western United in 2020.

But while he’s proud of the success of Bayew and others, out on the fields of St Albans in Western Melbourne, Yabio knows there’s only so much his organization can do.

He’d like to see more subsidized opportunities for promising players who can’t afford to be part of the costly academy system.

“Implementing a scholarship within clubs, I know there are some great clubs that do it, having a best practice among clubs… that would work well.

“Otherwise, we could be missing out on the next Socceroo, because of the fee barrier.”

Adisu Bayew injured his calf earlier this month and will miss tonight’s A-League Men’s semifinal first leg between Western United and Melbourne Victory. The Socceroos play the UAE in the World Cup playoff at 5am AEST on Wednesday, June 8.

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