|By PADDY HIGGS
CHIEF EDITOR - AUSTRALIA
Former Socceroo Josip Skoko believes Football Federation Australia has let down some of Australian football's finest products, saying the country's highest-profile players will rarely consider the A-League a viable destination until more is done.
Skoko, 36, spent 15 years playing in the top flights of England, Croatia, Turkey and Belgium, but says the FFA has not done enough to entice Australia's best back home and has also failed to provide adequate career pathways for players upon hanging up the boots.
Skoko - a member of the Socceroos' 2006 World Cup squad who retired in 2011 after one season with Melbourne Heart - said the FFA had "not done much" about talks regarding actively working to bring high-profile players home while he was still an international.
"I'm not really sure what happened with [Newcastle Jets marquee Emile] Heskey and [Sydney FC marquee Alessandro] Del Piero and that, but I think they have been helped out by the FFA. Why can't the FFA jump on board and help out our boys as well?" Skoko told Goal.com.
"I think I remember three, four years ago they actually spoke about, if a Socceroo comes back and the clubs offering X dollars that the FFA will match it with X dollars.
"I thought that was a great initiative. That's really showing a bit of respect and trying to bring players back. But it doesn't have to be that. It could be anything that makes the guys think, 'Oh, the league is looking better and better'."
An FFA spokesman refuted Skoko's claims, saying the game's governing body "actively encourages" the return of Australians based overseas. The spokesman also pointed to the seven former Socceroos in A-League head-coaching positions and the return of current players Brett Emerton [Sydney FC] and Vince Grella [Heart].
But the cases of Australia captain Lucas Neill and international team-mate Tim Cahill - two of the most recognisable faces of the Australian game - argue the case of Skoko, rather than that of the FFA.
They elected to sign contracts with clubs in the United Arab Emirates and the United States respectively rather than explore moves to A-League clubs.
Skoko also questioned the treatment of returning players in the media, the stands and on the pitch: "I think a lot of the boys don't get credit for what they've done and what they give to the game when they come back here," he said.
"And I think it's a little unfair when they do come back here, take Harry Kewell for instance, everybody kicked up a fuss about the deal he was trying to put together.
"… In general, the superstar that he is and [being] one of the most talked about players ever, when he came back I don't think he was given the respect at all. Not just him, but other Socceroos have come back in the past and been targeted, just to prove a point.
"Nobody has to go out of the way to do anything, just make it normal. Don't go out of your way to be negative towards them. That's happened in the past."
Finding a livelihood after football can also prove tough. While Skoko fills his time coaching juniors at North Geelong and is acting as a consultant for sports science company Sports Wizard, the likes of Craig Moore - one of Australia's greatest-ever defenders - had to wait patiently before landing a role as an FFA elite football mentor.
Skoko believes the path to completing coaching qualifications could be easier in Australia, citing the decisions of senior A-League coaches Tony Popovic [Western Sydney Wanderers] and John Aloisi [Heart] to do their badges in the United Kingdom.
FFA argues that its elite coaching workshops, coaching scholarship programs and the 'My Football Career' program have aided the transition of player to coach, while the development of A-League assistant coaches Michael Valkanis [Adelaide United] and Steve Corica [Sydney FC] has been aided by scholarships to spend time at major clubs in Europe.
But Danny Tiatto agreed with former Socceroos team-mate Skoko that chances to further footballing experiences off the pitch are limited for players of Australia's 'golden generation'.
"There will probably be a number of players who want to get involved but there's probably not a lot of opportunities," said Tiatto, who is nonetheless happy to spent his retirement largely away from the game.
"I think it'd be something for the FFA to think about, getting players like that back into the game."