Last month the FFA rang the death knell for its Centre of Excellence (COE) at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, bringing an abrupt end to its 35-year existence during which time it played a significant part in the development of such talented players as Mark Viduka, Ned Zelic, Vince Grella, Mark Bresciano, and Lucas Neil, just to name a few. The COE was a key element of the FFA’s elite development pathway, aimed at developing players for the Australian U17s (Joeys) and A-League clubs.

The doors of the COE were to close in August but they may reopen if a bold plan by a private Melbourne-based football academy comes to fruition.

Football Star Academy (FSA) is one of the largest football academies in Australia with 5000 kids under its coaches who are under the technical direction of former Manchester United and Ajax star Jesper Olsen and former Melbourne Victory and Belgian defender Geoff Claeys.

FSA Founder and CEO Peter Nikolakopoulos told Neos Kosmos that “We’re already in discussion (with the Canberra-based Australian Sports Commission) as we speak. The wheels are in motion. They’re really keen to fill a void. They’ve got a facility there that’s sitting idle. Their main aim is to look at what they’re going to put there. Obviously we’re front runners and the only ones that have come up with the initiative to make it happen.”

“The COE has been a big part of football development and could continue to be a major part. To have the program running for athletes to be able to excel and develop is a necessity in this country. There’s a massive shortfall of opportunities.”

Under the FFA, the COE developed 24 of the nation’s top players aged between 14-17 years at a cost of $1.6 million per year. The FFA decided earlier this year, that decentralising elite player development to the A-League club academies would give greater access to elite development.

Nikolakopoulos says the FSA’s plan is to expand the COE program to involve more talented players with two key elements to that expansion. He said, “A key objective would be to expand the scope of the COE and significantly invest in the indigenous community pathway and talent identification process to discover the next generation of stars and potentially change and improve the lives of this relatively untapped part of the Australian football community . . . another thing we’re passionate about is women’s football development. Allowing girls to be a part of the program.”

Nikolakopoulos says the FSA’s plan would also look to increase the age of young players eligible for the program to include 17-21 year olds. He feels this would give many talented young players who had been at A-League youth squads but who had missed out on contracts, a further opportunity to develop in an elite environment. He told Neos Kosmos, “I speak to a lot of A-League coaches that I’m good friends with and ask how many young players are released. They release five or six per year that do not make the grade to first team. These players are too old now for their club’s youth set up. But these kids are only 18,19, and 20 [years old]. They’ve got nowhere to go. We want to take them on board, give them an opportunity. Let’s say if they come into the program, within 12 months, can we build them to a point where they can go back into the A-League or more importantly, can they go international? Can they play in Europe?”

He supports the FFA’s decision to decentralise elite player development to the A-League academies and feels the club academies and COE can coexist and greatly expand the opportunities for young talented player development. “When you look at the A-League clubs, what they’re going to be doing is producing players for the A-League. We’re going to be producing players for the A-League, for internationals, for Europe and Asia as well. Because there’s not enough spots. You need to give these kids an opportunity to be developed. The more we have for them the better it’s going to be for the game.
“We’re very passionate about development and were pretty excited about it. I think we can play a major part in what we provide as a football school. We want to find the next Golden Generation. We want to be a part of that, and do our bit for that.”