Former Socceroo Craig Foster – back at his old stomping ground in Goonellabah.
Former Socceroo Craig Foster – back at his old stomping ground in Goonellabah.

Foster's dream of a soccer capital

To say that Craig Foster is obsessed with football would be a gross understatement. The former Socceroo midfielder turned SBS commentator wants to revolutionise the way the code of football (or what most of us still call soccer) is taught and developed in this country. His ultimate aim is that Australia should win that most elusive of sporting prizes – the FIFA World Cup – some time this century.

And he believes that the North Coast has a crucial role to play. He has been lobbying politicians at all levels, and anyone else he thinks might be able to help him in seeing his idea of a ‘Centre for Excellence’ built here in conjunction with Southern Cross University.

“We need a dedicated football facility in order to train them well enough and regularly enough… If we have a great facility, then what I can offer the area is the ability to connect the Far North Coast into the rest of the world of football. The biggest game in the world; huge industry, massive opportunities.”

Craig was born and bred in Goonellabah and played his earliest football there, but he said it is more than just sentimental journeying that has brought him back.

“I really believe in the talent here and I know it’s untrained and I think we can do extraordinary things. Every time I come back, I’m struck by the kids. The older you get the more you notice it. In the cities people are closed, everyone is fearful of something… You come here and I’m struck by the health and the openness of the kids and it’s about the food, the people and the environment,” he said. “I believe we can produce in this area half the Socceroo and Matilda teams within 10 years. I know no-one else in the country is being trained (properly). I know that they don’t have the environment, the facilities… they’re not as strong and healthy, and these kids learn quickly.”

Craig has just had a week away from his commitments at SBS. His wife was hoping to get away to Bali for a holiday, but Craig booked himself in as the Australia Day ambassador to Lismore and then organised a four-day clinic for coaches around his trip.

He brought with him some big players in the development of the game including Han Berger, the Football Federation’s national technical director, and also Ruben Della from Barcelona Escola, which is the worldwide training academy run by Barcelona FC.

About 70 coaches turned up and Craig told them to forget everything they thought they knew about football and to learn from a club that won an unprecedented six titles last year and has a worldwide development program that starts with kids at the age of five.

“I understand some locals say ‘this idiot left 25 years ago, who does he think he is coming back and telling us we don’t know anything?’. It’s a bit of a process that I’m trying to navigate… All I can say is I’m doing it for nothing, there’s no commercial interest (for me).”

Craig grew up in what he called “an idyllic environment” with his brothers Paul and Steve. They played sport every day, ran around at their grandparent’s dairy farm at Whian Whian and all three boys were selected to train at the Australian Institute of Sport.

Their father Kevin was a mechanic with a business in Lismore and Craig said he never would have got anywhere if his father hadn’t supported them the way he did.

“He was a very good cricketer, tennis player and a sprinter. But what happened was that when me and my older brother started coming up (through the ranks), he basically turned his attention to supporting us in what we were doing… That’s one of the values I learnt growing up in the country. You have children and you sacrifice for them; you don’t make them sacrifice for you, he said. “He made a financial sacrifice, a time sacrifice, a family sacrifice for about 10 years. I remember driving nine hours to a game in Newcastle – it was extraordinary. If I had to do the same thing for my son I don’t know if I could do it because carer wise, there’s just not enough time.

“We had a routine, we’d play under 13s at 10 in the morning, we’d back up and play for the under 16s at 1pm then race home and mum would have everything packed and we’d jump straight into the old station wagon. A lot of other kids who were selected (for regional and state games) their parents had neither the time nor the inclination to do it, which is understandable, so we often used to take the others… So I had the opportunities partly because Kev made that commitment. If he hadn’t, nothing would have happened.”

Craig’s vision for the North Coast is not just about training future generations of players, but also coaches, and based on the Barcelona model, he sees career paths being forged in an expanding industry.

“The numbers are building, but we don’t have enough coaches, not good ones…The reality at the moment is to go from here to being an A League coach is a big step. It’s one in 1000 – it’s possible but it’s extremely difficult. What is entirely possible is to be educated as a coach here, particularly in youth, and to become an expert at that. That’s just science and you become extremely valuable right around the country because Australian football is desperate for quality youth coaches. That’s why I approached the university here. I said, ‘Let’s put a process in place where you educate them through the university and once I bring the right methodology through these guys (Barcelona Escola) then all of the Asian coaches will want to come.

“I’ve already had the discussions with various Asian Federations who would send coaches and kids to come and be trained. So we can produce a football industry on the North Coast because of our proximity to the Gold Coast airport and Ballina. We have the transport, we have the environment and the hunger and the intelligence of the people. It’s really in the hands of the locals now. Like I told them on day one, I said, ‘I can’t do it for you, all I can do is open the doors, and if you guys want to do it, you do it’.”

Last year when he started talking about the idea for a Centre of Excellence it attracted funding of $110,000 to do a feasibility study, which is currently at the stage where all the parties are negotiating how that money should be spent.

“Janelle Saffin is chairing the committee… I would have liked the feasibility to have started three months ago… but we need an agreement in terms of the use of those funds, but that’s not my area of expertise, so all I’m doing is waiting for those agreements to be consummated then the feasibility will go. In 12 months time or six months they’ll say, ‘this is what the centre should look like.’

“The next step then is producing a football economy. We’ll start slowly, some artificial pitches, some land, a centre with good facilities like change rooms, offices etc. That’s enough to get moving and then I can start to bring people into town. We had about 70 coaches here (for the four-day clinic) and it was the first time with very limited promotion. So next time I bring another three or four coaches from Barcelona and we’ll do a week’s course and we’ll have people coming from all over the country.”

And he’s deadly serious about Australia winning the World Cup.

“As a nation we have done it (achieved success) in sports that the world doesn’t really care about; swimming, cricket, rugby league and rugby union. I respect them all, but no-one cares, really, relative to our code. 209 countries play football. There’s only 192 in the UN, so apparently 17 of them don’t give a stuff about world peace and they’d rather play football. That’s probably a fair reflection of what this game means to people around the world.

“What happened at the last World Cup was the world said, ‘those Aussies, that’s interesting what they did. They didn’t play the best football, but they can fight!’

“The Italians after that game said, ‘if you guys can ever get trained; we’re stuffed if you can do that with very limited training’. Because most of those guys really got trained when they went to European clubs in their late teens, but up to that age they were way behind the rest of the world.

“This is the final piece of the sporting puzzle and it’s going to happen this century, but I don’t know when. That depends on how quickly we can change.

“What I believe is that to become a football nation, it will actually change Australia. So it’s not just about our sporting history, it’s about Australia… It’s outward… The other codes are last century, football is this century.

“Last century we were concerned about building our nation, working out who we are, assimilating multiculturalism and trying to work out how to live together. That’s inward! This century we’re outward. Australia wants to be a part of the global environmental movement, we want to deal with Asia… In 2010 we’re more outward looking than we’ve ever been. And that’s what football is. It’s the code that engages the world.

“When Australia plays now against Thailand or Indonesia, AUStrade is organising functions in each of those cities and the Australian government is getting significant political and commercial capital out of those diplomatic functions. They’re using football and that’s never happened before because no-one else plays the other sports.

“That’s why it’s the game of 21st century Australia. We are the multicultural nation and every culture in Australia plays football.”

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