With the final members of Australia's Golden Generation all but gone, and the Socceroos in transition, where do we look for the Next Gen of Next Gems – the players with the potential to take Australian football past what came before it?
To make it in football is arguably harder than ever for Australian footballers these days.
The youth structure that brought the Golden Generation of Socceroos through is gone, and the Football Federation Australia national curriculum is only starting to bring players through into the senior ranks.
There remains much to do – and youth football is littered with bad decisions over the choices that have to be made and routes that have been taken.
Should players stay in Australia to establish themselves before moving overseas? Should they stick to the existing elite pathway programmes or try their luck with overseas-based private academies and clubs?
At clubs like Argentina’s River Plate, Italy’s Udinese and Inter Milan, several young Australians are making a name for themselves outside the domestic game.
Then there others trying to make a mark in the A-League first, just as the likes of Mark Viduka, Brett Emerton and Mark Bresciano did in the National Soccer League before heading overseas.
Next Gen’s Next Gems have common threads running through their story. The majority grew up playing football in Australia, most of them want to play for the Socceroos and all have the same ultimate goal – to play football at the highest level.
Most have dual nationalities and have already featured for the country of their heritage; a couple could even be lost to Australian football forever.
Some may never develop enough to be in contention, some may go on to be the a new Cahill, Viduka or Kewell – but across the world, there are Aussie youngsters out there, plugging away in far off lands, staking their claim to be the Next Gen Next Gem. We met up with some…
Panos Armenakas, 16
Panos Armenakas recently penned a three year contract with Serie A club Udinese making the then 15 year old the youngest ever Australian to sign a professional contract in one of Europe's top five leagues.
Armenakas grew up playing futsal after his father wanted to emulate the experience of street football so his son could learn to play like a Brazilian.
Armenakas was a child football prodigy. At six he was invited to go to Spain and spend a month on an all expenses paid trip to play with football giant FC Barcelona.
The child prodigy is now a teenager training regularly with the Udinese first team and having the attention on him from a young age is nothing new for Armenakas.
“To a certain extent, there has been attention on me (both positive and negative) from a very young age and this is something I have just learned to accept and deal with as it comes,” he said.
Armenakas was picked for the AC Milan Academy when he was 12, bypassing the existing youth structure run by Football NSW at the time. He says: “It was a personal choice, one that was based on personal opinion in terms of their philosophy and their approach to coaching.”
Armenakas’s favoured position is the playmaker role. The Azzurri has have never had a problem producing players who can take on the Trequartista role – players like Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti and Roberto Baggio just to name a few. It’s a position that Australian football has been crying out for years.
“Not only Australia, but many other countries and clubs have been crying out for an authentic number 10 for some time now,” said Armenakas.
“Systems have changed over the years and in some cases, the authentic number 10 has not had the system around him to play in that type of role.”
A tug of war could ensue between Greece and Australia for Armenakas’s services for the Under 17 World Cup. The 16 year old has played for Greece’s Under 17 side a number of times but he is still eligible for the Socceroos.
Will Tony Vidmar pick Armenakas for the Joeys at the Under 17 World Cup next October? Who would Armenakas choose if both teams qualify?
“I think any talk of Socceroos is way too early right now,” says the teenager. “Of course it would be an honour to represent your country at senior level, but for now, my main focus is working hard at club level and the international stuff will come when it comes.
“It’s not something I am chasing.”
Gavin De Niese (18)
River Plate, Argentina
When Gavin De Niese was 10 years old, he joined River Plate Academy Australia in Melbourne. Three years later, the Argentine giants came calling and the Melbourne youngster spent the next five years travelling to Argentina playing for River Plate’s various youth teams.
As a result of FIFA rules De Niese was not allowed to play official games for the ‘Los Millionairos’ until he turned 18. The Springvale White eagle junior bided his time for four years and now plays for the Under-18s team in the Quinta league, making De Niese the first Australian ever to play for River Plate.
“I first came to Argentina wanting to learn the difference in football and get experience,” said De Niese.
“As time went by I realised I had it in me to be able to play for this club, so it was hard not being able to play until I was 18 but that made me more determined and I kept learning from the boys around me and always paying attention to my coaches.”
One of the biggest benefits of moving to a country like Argentina is that football is embedded in the culture. De Niese not only learnt a new language but he lived and breathed the Argentine was of playing.
“First the language barrier was hard, but now I can speak Spanish fluently,” he said.
“Football is different in Argentina. There is so much passion, the play is a lot faster and physical, and technically everyone knows how to play the ball when the ball is at their feet, so you always have to concentrate, go in hard and make sure you make the right decisions when you have the ball.”
The Superclásico between River Plate and Boca Juniors is one of world football’s most famous derbies. Even down to the youth teams, beating Boca is a big deal.
“The main game for us is Boca, when the crowd really gets involved,” said De Niese. “It’s just so different, the build up, it’s a different week.
“Just the feel around the club, it’s crazy here. The passion for football is indescribable. They live for it!”
Last month De Niese came on as a sub for River Plate against Quilmes in the Quinta League – and promptly smashed in a hat-trick on
“It was a great feeling,” said De Niese after the game. “The Clasico too was always a goal I wanted to complete and was able to play.
“It had heaps of fans, flares, drums – the lot. It was one of the biggest moments games I've played in.
“This is by far my best year and I’m happy how everything has come along
De Niese has many teammates that have represented Argentina at youth level and while FFA hadn’t approached him, he was hopeful of being in contention for Paul Okon’s Young Socceroos.
“It’s always been a dream to wear the green and gold, I would love to,” he says. “I know I could do well there, but if not I know one day I’ll get noticed and get the chance to play for Australia if it’s my destiny.”
James Demetriou (19)
James Demetriou recently became the latest Aussie to join the ranks of the English Premier League by signing a contract with Swansea after spending a year with Championship club Nottingham Forest.
The move came after Swansea were impressed by the 19-year-old striker’s form for Nottingham Forest Under-21 side, but his first season in England was a mixed bag. While he scored plenty of goals, his progress was curtailed by an injury.
“I was a regular in the Under-21s. I only played 12-14 games last season and scored nine goals,” said Demetriou.
“I was just beginning to find my feet after scoring five or six in as many games, when I made an underlying injury worse in a bad collision with Sunderland defender Carlos Cuéllar.”
This is the second crack at the EPL for Demetriou. When he was 16, he spent five months trialling with Southampton but visa issues shortened his stay so he returned home and played with Sydney Olympic.
Returning home from his European dream did not dishearten Demetriou.
He made his first team debut for Sydney Olympic at only 16 and after impressing in the top tier of NSW football he was offered a trial with Nottingham Forest.
Demetriou went to Scots College, Sydney’s famous private school renowned for excelling in sport, and was there when Armenakas also attended the school from the ages of six to eight, with the two of them often playing Futsal against each other.
Things first started happening for Demetriou while playing for Marconi under 15s and he was spotted by Sydney FC youth coach Steve Corica who brought him to the A-League club.
“What a year that was!” said Demetriou. “Pat Faga (coach at Marconi) moved me from an attacking midfielder into a striker.
“There were only five games that season I failed to score for my team, and I think that was why I was chosen to train under Steve Corica.”
While he has already played three games for Cyprus’s Under-21 side and impressed enough to be approached by the Cyprus FA to be a full international, Demetriou’s dream remains to represent his country of birth.
“I was involved in a London based camp for the Under-20 Australian team last year, but that is the only approach FFA has made at this stage, hence my recent decision to link up with the Cypriot national team,” said Demetriou.
“It’s a lifelong dream to play for the Socceroos and I desperately hope that one day I will achieve it.”
Rafael Jimenez (18)
Rafael Jimenez, Madrid-born to an Australian father and a Spanish mother, plays as a central defender for the Under-19s at Spanish La Liga club Villarreal.
His football development has been exclusively in Spain, at some of the world’s biggest clubs.
Jimenez started at giants Real Madrid at the age of seven, before moving to their rivals Atletico Madrid at the age of 12, and then onto Villarreal at 16 in 2012.
“Villarreal has one of the best youth development programs in Spain,“ he said. “My first year was quite tough coping with a big change as I had to leave home at 16 and live in the academy. It took me about six months to adapt.”
Jimenez has a unique story. Even though he has never set foot in Australia, last year he was selected to play for the Young Socceroos. In some fine football symmetry Jimenez scored on his debut, in L'Alcúdia, Spain, against Mexico.
Last year Jimenez was involved in the AFC U-19 Championship qualifiers held in Malaysia.
“My experience in Malaysia was great although I believe I still wasn’t at my peak at the time,” said Jimenez.
“I believe our performance was quite good considering the state of the grounds we played on. Our performance against Vietnam was quite poor but this happens in football and we must learn from the good and the bad experiences.”
Coming into the Australian team as an outsider and not being fluent in English could have been an obstacle for the former Real Madrid junior. After some initial first day jitters Jimenez was soon made to feel welcome by his teammates and the coaching staff.
“At first I felt a little nervous and a bit out of place,” said Jimenez.
“I didn’t know the guys at all so I didn’t know what to expect from the players and the coach so I was a little uncertain. The treatment from Paul Okon and all the coaching staff and the guys was great and I quickly felt like one of the boys. They all made me feel really comfortable considering that I´m not a native English speaker.”
Being born and raised in Spain with an Aussie father means the most asked question Jimenez gets is which country he wants to play football for, Australia or Spain – but Jimenez isn’t giving anything away.
“I always answer the same,” he says. “I will play for whoever has the most confidence in me.”
Gian Mendez (16)
Former Football NSW Institute of Sport player Gian Mendez initially moved to Spain because his sister Seone was using Valencia as a base for her tennis career, and took advantage of his geographical location by signing with Spanish La Liga side Valencia.
Mendez comes from proper football stock, as his father is former Socceroos midfielder Gabriel ‘Chi Chi’ Mendez.
Backyard sport sessions in the Mendez household would have been intense affairs. Normally a dream move like this to Europe would take centre stage in the family kitchen table but not for the Mendez family.
“At home it’s very competitive,” said Mendez.“It’s full of highs and lows, like life in general and I’m very grateful to my family for all the sacrifices that they have made.
“Backyard games continue to be extremely intense but always fun.”
Gian Mendez was another who played futsal with Armenakas, and then spent time with him at Sydney’s Apia Leichhardt Tigers Under-12s, where his father “Chi Chi” was the coach.
The Under-17 Australian representative looked back on his time with NSW club Blacktown City and the Australian Institute of Sport as a key part of his football development.
“I spent two years with Blacktown City Under 13-14s. Blacktown encouraged good football, the training sessions were enjoyable and it served its purpose at that time of my development.
“I had a brief stint with the AIS and it was a very positive experience.”
Valencia has a history of producing quality midfielders like David Silva and Juan Mata. Speaking about his experience when he first signed with Los Che, Mendez initially found the experience intimidating.
“It was a feeling of excitement, happiness, a sense of accomplishment and at the same time relief,” said Mendez
“It is quite intimidating walking into such a huge club. My first goal is to cement my position in the team, be consistent with my performances and to continue developing my game.”
“The biggest difference from my point of view is the culture and the approach to each and every training session, the intensity that everything is done at.”
Mendez is already a Joey - and proud to pull on the green and gold.
“It is always an honour to represent your country,” he says. “I’m working hard every day to hopefully add more caps in the near future.”
Reno Piscopo (16)
Inter Milan, Italy
When Reno Piscopo was 14, he was spotted by an Inter Milan scout while on a training trip to Italy with the Genova International School of Soccer.
After trialling with the Nerazzurri, the Melbourne Phoenix junior signed a contract.
Piscopo’s story went mainstream in Australia (appearing on the Channel Seven Sunrise program and Channel Ten’s News) due to the 16 year old captaining the Azzurri’s Under-15 team and because he’s at such a big club.
But for all the attention, Piscopo says he’d rather just concentrate on football.
“I mind the attention and I ignore the haters,” he says. “My family keep my feet on the ground. They remind me that I’m only at the beginning of a long road and can all be gone tomorrow.
“They’d rather I be left alone to do my own thing.”
Piscopo currently plays for Inter Milan’s Under 17 squad in the Allievi Nazionale league and has given himself a year to crack the Primavera (Under 19s) squad.
Piscopo, who has an Italian father, speaks very fondly of his experiences so far in Italian football, and it looks like he could be lost to the Socceroos. He spoke highly of the set-up and facilities at the club.
“The main facility is really nice,” he says. “There are several training areas at the same venue and the facilities are very well looked after.
“There is security so it’s not open to the public and the head office is there so we always get VIPs come to watch players train. I’m treated the same as every other player. There is no difference.”
He refuses to answers the question on whether playing for Australia is an option, yet he glows about his time with the Azzurri youth.
“It was amazing, some of the players are the future of Italian football,” he says. “People know your background and all the statistics even outside of Italy. I like the different style of training and also travelling around Europe for games.”
He isn’t shy in highlighting how big the differences between Italian and Australian football culture:
“In Italy people are serious about playing football and football is life! In Australia it’s still a hobby and people have a life away from football.”
Steven Ugarkovic (19)
NK Osijek, Croatia
Steven Ugarkovic is a defensive midfielder who spent time trialling with Dinamo Zagreb but chose to sign a three-year contract with NK Osijek because their football youth program is regarded as one of the best in the country, and now plays for them in the PRVA HNL.
The 17 year old from Western Sydney left high school a year early to follow his dream of playing in Croatia. In his first season with NK Osijek, Ugarkovic won the Under 19s league title.
Ugarkovic’s second season saw him make his professional debut in just the second game of the HNL season and he finished the season making over 20 first team appearances.
It was a dramatic season for NK Osijek. There were four changes of coach as the team struggled to get away from the relegation zone. Eventually the team finished just out of the relegation zone after getting a draw they needed to escape the drop.
Looking back on his breakthrough season, Ugarkovic spoke of that last day drama as well as his experience with the fanatical home support.
“The best ways to describe last season is a roller coaster ride! The relegation battle was a great experience that I would definitely not want to go through again this season,” he said.
“The last game of the season was a game of mixed emotions. When we conceded early on our hearts sank. But when we had scored the equaliser with five mins left it felt like the stadium exploded. When the final whistle went we had survived relegation. All the fans rushed onto the field and grabbed my jersey and shorts, also one fan asked for my underwear,” laughed Ugarkovic.
“It was another feeling I will never forget and it felt like we had won the league, not survived relegation.”
One of the negative aspects of heading overseas as a young footballer is that you’re out of sight and out of mind when it comes to national youth team selection. Ugarkovic was sounded by the FFA but only after he played a couple of games with the Under 19 Croatian team.
“The most rewarding moment would have to be getting two caps for the Croatian national under-19 team,” said Ugarkovic.
“Having been called up to the national team was a great experience, which some players never get the privilege, or the experience and I am very grateful for opportunity.”
Will Ugarkovic join the likes of fellow Australian-Croatian players Josep Simunic and Joey Didulica and play for their heritage and not their country of birth? The jury appears to be still out on that one.
“These questions are too early in my career to keep talking about,” said Ugarkovic.
“All I can do is work hard to get more game time and then see what happens or if it does come about. I haven’t really put a lot of thought into it, but of course it would be a difficult decision to make. You can only make those decisions if the opportunity is offered in the first place.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Australia FourFourTwo magazine. Never miss an issue packed with features like this by subscribing HERE.
Con Stamocostas is an Australian football writer. Check out Episode Six of his latest A-League Snobcast: with co-host Rob Toddler.