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Postecoglou: National teams must come first

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In 1985, I was selected to represent Australia at the under-20 world cup. In terms of my international career, it ended up being the highlight as my senior international career did not go anywhere near that level.

The pride I felt wearing the Socceroos shirt at the world youth cup was immense. Playing for my country was the ultimate dream.

This week, as the debate about whether players should have been released to play in the under-22 tournament resurfaced, I feel we are again forgetting the challenges of the past.

Mark Schwarzer and Brett Emerton would often choose country over club and their example made it clear where the priority should be.

I have been a coach who has been affected at both club and international level by these dilemmas and my strong beliefs have been challenged.

I have always believed country comes first, with no negotiation, but at times as a club coach, my responsibility to my employer has made me question my stance.

I also questioned my stance when, as national youth coach, I wanted total commitment from every player to his country – something many young players found difficult because of pressure from overseas clubs.

So who is right? The club coach who believes the player should be the responsibility of the club or the international coach who believes that being called by your country should be the priority? And what of the players’ feelings? The opportunity to represent your country at any level is something every young player aspires to, so why should he or she be denied a lifelong dream?

My view has not changed even though my belief has often led to what many would consider costly decisions.

In 2001, we had qualified for the world youth cup in Argentina and it was to be my first as coach.

After selecting the final team, I was faced with a problem I had never envisaged – three players decided to pull out of the squad. One ended up representing another country at senior level while the other two felt that going to a world cup would affect their chances of breaking into the first team at their overseas clubs.

While it was a surprise to me at the time, the news was not broadly startling because of the general view about representing your nation. Often, even at senior level, players would not play for the Socceroos because of fears it could jeopardise their domestic careers.

Players were very much under pressure to choose between club and country.

My view hardened further after this and for the next campaign I decided that if a player did not make himself available for qualifiers then he would not go to the world youth cup.

Again, it was not unusual at the time for young players to be convinced by their overseas clubs that playing against the likes of Fiji was not beneficial to their careers.

My insistence on this meant that one player who would have been a certainty ended up not being selected to go to the world youth cup.

In the end, the team suffered as much as the player.

Fortunately, our game has evolved now and playing for your national team has been restored to its rightful place. The likes of Mark Schwarzer and Brett Emerton would often choose country over club and their example made it clear where the priority should be.

Some of the opinions thrown around this week dismiss just how easily we can fall back to those previous challenging times. If we begin again to pick and choose when it is appropriate to play for your country, then we must be prepared to pay the price in terms of our national shirt.

The A-League is developing and Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United have shown in this round that even with international absences, the opportunity for success and to unearth new young stars can more than compensate for any short-term challenge.

The debate is understandable, but in my opinion, our national teams at all levels, must remain the priority.

© 2014 The Age | This article was written by Ange Postecoglou and first appeared in The Age on 17 January 2014.

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