Australia lags behind world standards for football youth development
It's a cold, biting winter's night in Sydney's west, with a thick fog enveloping the football fields at Valentine Sports Park.
The figures of nearly 100 boys emerge from the mist, training with Sydney FC's Youth Academy.
A sign on one of the dressing room doors reads: "No World Cup talk."
But that's a near impossible command for these boys who are enthralled by the tournament, even after the Socceroos' early exit from Russia.
They're desperate to be the next Tim Cahill, or even more tangibly, teen hero Daniel Arzani.
"Just seeing them play is inspiring," said 16-year-old Jaiden Kucharski.
"I want to be there, and it's a great drive to get to that point."
But the biggest question hanging over them is, how will boys like Jaiden actually make that journey?
Australia lag behind world standards
The current landscape for football youth development in Australia is fragmented and different to world leaders like France, Germany and Spain.
The Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Canberra, established in 1981, was once the cornerstone of the pathway, producing many of the Socceroos' golden generation like Mark Viduka, Lucas Neill, Mark Bresciano, John Aloisi, and Luke Wilkshire.
But Football Federation Australia (FFA) decided to shut it down last year, leaving no centralised pathway for elite boys.
Instead it has fallen to clubs, schools and private academies to fill in the gaps.
Wilkshire, who forged a successful career in Europe and is now back home playing for the Wollongong Wolves, is concerned about the state of play.
"For me personally I think it's disappointing," he said.
"The facilities that we had [at the CoE], that every day that sort of professionalism … for me and for many others it was a fantastic program.
"From what I've seen [kids are] nurtured a little bit too nicely back here in Australia. You go over [to Europe] and it's people's livelihoods."
Socceroos' future in the hands of A-League clubs
FFA said the decision to close the CoE was to put A-League and the second tier National Premier League (NPL) clubs at the heart of player development.
All nine Australian based A-League clubs have established youth academies, as they take the onus for grooming the next generation of Socceroos.
Sydney FC's was among the first academies to be granted two-star accreditation status by FFA. It is led by Kelly Cross, who has coached elite talent there for 30 years.
On the night the ABC visited, he was assessing a group of under-12s from a local club in the NPL.
"I think the future is bright," Cross said after the session.
"The quality of young, skilful, talented players coming through in Sydney, and I imagine by definition the rest of the country too, the number is phenomenal."
The A-League has already played a significant part in developing players.
All members of the Socceroos starting 11 in the three matches in Russia this winter spent time there, with three squad members, Daniel Arzani, Josh Risdon, and Dimi Petratos currently active.
Cross sees this as a ringing endorsement for the national competition.
"Last time I looked it was 90 something per cent had played in the A-League first or the national league first, before they went [overseas], Cross said.
"I think the path of overseas is often fraught with danger.
"I personally know a great number of players who are in perhaps too much of a rush to go overseas at a younger age and for the majority it didn't work out."
But Wilkshire, who played for the Sky Blues last season, isn't convinced the A-League has got it right.
"I look at Sydney FC for an example over the last two years literally wiping the floor of everyone in the league, and I'm looking at these players earning the same money as the team finishing bottom, there's no bonus systems," he said.
"In Russia you get a lot of players, they'll get a contract, [and] they won't get out of bed if there's not a bonus. There's that extra incentive to win because that's their livelihood."
Educating the next generation of stars
FFA has also identified schools as a key cog to supplement the club academies, and in 2015 it implemented a high-performance pilot program with Westfields Sports High in NSW.
It includes 35 boys and girls aged from 14-16 who are scouted at the national youth championships.
"It's an individual program where they improve their technical skills," said Westfields Director of Football Kory Babington.
"It's not so much team focused, we work very closely with their clubs in order to maintain their training loads, look after them, and injury prevention, strength training, and hopefully help these kids achieve what they want to in football."
Westfields has been running an elite football program for 25 years, with impressive alumni including Harry Kewell and six members of the latest Socceroos World Cup squad.
The teenage faces of Aaron Mooy and Mat Ryan adorn the school halls, a constant reminder for students, like 14-year-old Jason Cakovski, of what is possible.
"The atmosphere is fantastic, the passion of everyone, the enthusiasm of all of the coaches, the training's been excellent from everyone, the gym coaches, they've been fantastic. They make us work really hard," the year nine student said.
"We want to work on the technical side here as much as we can and send them back to their clubs a better player," adds Babington.
"This last year we've had players end up at Chelsea, Manchester United, Man City. Some players often go to Europe when they're quite young.
"At school here, we're more focused on improving a player to be the best they can be."
Need to get them while they're young
Football's popularity in Australia at the grassroots level is unrivalled.
It is the number one club-based team sport for children and adults combined with an estimated 1.16 million participants.
And it is the top team-based activity for boys with more than 500,000 participants.
Australian Rules football is a distant second.
But the numbers have not translated into results at youth level.
The Olyroos have not qualified for an Olympics since 2008, while the Under-17s and Under-20s missed last year's World Cups.
And the Socceroos have just two wins from five World Cup appearances, only advancing past the group stage once, in Germany in 2006.
Kory Babington says it is crucial to start developing players' technical base and tactical knowledge from a younger age.
"I think an increased investment in coach education and investing in coaches is important to get your best coaches working with the best players and often at a younger age," he said.
"In Australia, possibly a lot of the well qualified coaches are working with the top men's teams."
Wilkshire laments the facilities for kids in regional areas, like the Illawarra.
"I'm seeing some of the young elite juniors here, the conditions they're training on, and in order to improve they need to be better, it's as simple as that," he said.
"The kids over in Europe, they have that opportunity to improve on a better surface and we need to do that and then to give them the coaching and the equipment to be able to go on and live that dream."
But Cross warns against overreacting in the aftermath of Australia's latest World Cup result.
"I think there's a lot of strange conversations going on at the moment and you get people who suddenly want to throw everything out and look for the magic answer, and there isn't one," he said.
"We're not the only country in the world, if you look at development and results, where things can actually go up and down.
"To expect Australia to constantly produce world class players who can win World Cups for you is probably not realistic."
While the experts debate the way of the future, boys like Jaiden Cakovski and Jaiden Kucharski just hope come 2022, or 2026, their schoolboy World Cup dreams have been given the best chance possible of becoming reality.