After more than a decade of overseas-based players dominating selection for the Socceroos, Australian-based players are back in significant numbers. Seven players from Australia’s 2014 World Cup squad were based in the A-League. While still by no means a majority, it is a substantial shift from the previous three World Cup campaigns where Australian-based players hardly got a look-in for the big matches.

The 2015 Asian Cup squad also included seven A-League players – most whom appeared in the winning final team against South Korea – confirming the trend back to domestic-based players.

Aussies abroad over time

For many decades, Australian national team players were all based in Australia. While there was the occasional Australian representative who ventured abroad before the late 1980s, trail-blazers such as Joe Marston (Preston North End 1950–1954), John Kosmina (Arsenal 1977–1978) and Yakka Banovic (Derby County 1981–1983) were never based at their European club when called up for international duty.

The first player to turn out for the Socceroos while based at a non-Australian club was Jim Patikas, who was with AEK Athens when he returned to Australia to play against Chinese Taipei in an Olympics qualifier in March 1988. The squad for Australia’s final 1990 World Cup qualifying group stage, against New Zealand and Israel in early 1989, included four overseas-based players – Frank Farina (Club Brugge), Eddie Krncevic (Anderlecht), David Mitchell (Chelsea) and Charlie Yankos (PAOK Salonika).

With these and a handful of other Australians based in Europe at this time, the club versus country debate started to come to the boil after bubbling away pretty quietly for a few years. The lower profile of the national team in the 1980s, and difficulty for players to take leave from their clubs to trek half-way across the world (for what was often seen to be meaningless matches), made it easier to reject Socceroo selection back then. It’s difficult to imagine Craig Johnston reaching the heights he did with Liverpool in the mid-1980s had he interspersed his career in England with return trips to play for Australia. Similarly for AEK-based Jim Patikas and Panathinaikos pair Chris Kalantzis and Lou Hristodoulou, who all would have been faced with uncertain futures at their big Greek clubs had they taken part in Australia’s 1990 World Cup qualifying campaign.

In the early 1990s a more continuous stream of Australians were moving to Europe. With a critical mass of first-choice national representatives now playing abroad, the Australian Soccer Federation could no longer afford for its best players to snub selection. Under Eddie Thomson, Australia held its first camp for expatriate players in 1992, in the Netherlands.

For the crunch World Cup qualifier showdown against Argentina in 1993, only half the squad were Australian-based; the other half resided in England (Mark Bosnich, David Mitchell), Belgium (Graham Arnold, Dominic Longo, Aurelio Vidmar), the Netherlands (Milan Blagojevic, Jason Van Blerk), France (Frank Farina, Robbie Slater) and Germany (Ned Zelic).

The mid-1990s was a turning point where Australian-based players shifted from the majority to minority of first-choice Socceroo teams. In 1996, Soccer Australia experimented with the ‘Superstars of Soccer’ series, pitting a home-based Australian side against a team of expatriates in a two-legged tie broadcast on Channel 9. The NSL-based True Blues lost to the International Travellers (2-4 on aggregate) in a series not only acting as an internal trial, but as a commercial test for a simmering rivalry between the loyalist locals and the glamorous expats that never really took off.

The first all-overseas-based starting eleven for the Australian national team took place in March 1997, under Terry Venables against Macedonia. Yet despite the significant shift to Europe for Australia’s top players in the 1990s, this was the only match in that decade where no Australian-based player started.

By the turn of the 2000s however, all-overseas-based starting teams were becoming common, including in the Confederations Cup and final World Cup qualifiers in 2001. The only Australian-based players to start in any 2001 Confederations Cup match were Scott Chipperfield (Wollongong) and Steve Horvat (Melbourne Knights). Horvat remained the only domestic-based player in the final World Cup qualifiers squad against Uruguay in November 2001, however the Knights defender did not take the field in either play-off match.

The locally-based players did themselves no favours when relied upon at the 2002 Oceania Nations Cup, losing in the final to New Zealand in a result regarded at the time as disaster for Australian football. In the Socceroos’ next match, an all-European-based 17 (including six substitutes) scored a famous away victory over mother England to further signal the superiority of those playing abroad.

For the 2006 World Cup, the only domestic league players to make the grade were Michael Beauchamp and Mark Milligan, while for 2010 it was just Gold Coast United’s Jason Culina in the 23-player World Cup squad.

Brazil 2014 however marked a turnaround for Australian national league players, with seven such players in the final World Cup squad. The 2015 Asian Cup also included seven A-League players.

The changing distribution of Australians overseas

Until 1991 overseas-based Australians had only been called up for national team duty from clubs in Belgium, England, Greece and the Netherlands. The first Socceroo selected while playing for an Asian club was Alister Edwards, from Malaysian side Johor in 1992. By 1997 the spread of home bases included Italy, Croatia, Switzerland, Spain and Japan. However England continued to remain the country from where most expatriate Australians were called up from. In the year 2000, 15 players based in the English leagues played for the Socceroos.

In 2009-10 a shift away from Europe was taking place, with the three big east Asian leagues (China, Japan and South Korea) and the Gulf states now becoming prominent destinations for Australian players. In 2012 two other countries were represented for the first time, the United States (Tim Cahill) and Uzbekistan (David Carney), making the distribution of home bases of the Australian team – in terms of regions – as wide as it had ever been.

The number of national team players based in England fell substantially, from a high of 15 in 2000, to just 5 in 2012 (Brett Holman, Adam Federici, Mile Jedinak, Mark Schwarzer and Rhys Williams). In the meantime, international debuts for English-based Jason Davidson, Chris Herd, Massimo Luongo and Brad Smith, plus Jedinak’s promotion to national captain, replenished the significance of English club players in the Australian team by 2014.

For World Cup year 2014, players based in 16 different countries played for Australia – this is the highest number of home base countries for Socceroo players in a calendar year. While the leagues of England (8 players), Germany (4) and the Netherlands (3) continued to be well-represented, players based in several other clubs across Europe, Asia and North America provided the Socceroos’ class of 2014 an extensive range of home base leagues to develop in and learn from.

The increasing spread of home bases of Australia’s representative players reflects the dispersal of good quality (and well-financed) leagues around the world that are open and attractive to foreigners. The wider range of Australians playing across the globe increases the overall worldliness of the national team, however highlights the challenge of good team preparation and maintaining a cohesive unit that, through most of the year, are living and playing thousands of kilometres away from each other.

A stronger Australian league – one that continues to increase its share of national team players coming from it – would go some way to reducing this collective isolation.

Home bases of Australian national team players 1985–2015 (by World Cup campaign), %

%World Cup campaign
National league19861990199419982002200620102014-15
Australia10097836938202225
England141227373119
Scotland26321
Belgium1612113
Netherlands*3244117
France2112
Germany136258
Denmark***
Norway1**
Sweden**
Portugal***
Spain2141
Switzerland**841
Italy1311103
Austria*1
Poland*1
Russia35
Romania21
Croatia33
Greece1*1
Turkey355
Japan1724
South Korea1*5
China12
Malaysia1*1
Uzbekistan1
Saudi Arabia*
Qatar*3
UAE
United States3
2014-15 column includes 2015 Asian Cup & lead-up games. * = less than 0.5%.
Percentage based on player appearances in all men's national team matches, including non-qualifying matches and friendlies, over the campaign period. Each world cup campaign is deemed to end at the final qualifying match of the campaign, or final world cup match.