Damning stat shows Socceroos are leagues behind
SOCCEROOS fans might be forgiven for taking World Cup qualification for granted - but these are the stark figures that chart the declining strength of the national team.
As the Australian team heads to Chinese Taipei for the next step on the road to Qatar 2022, Socceroos boss Graham Arnold can call on just a handful of players who are at clubs in the world's top leagues - compared with almost three quarters of the squad that qualified against Uruguay 14 years ago.
The numbers confirm a widespread perception that the number of Australians playing at the highest level has declined sharply since the Golden Generation changed the course of history under Guus Hiddink.
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Newscorp have compared the squads that qualified for World Cups in 2005, 2009, 2013 and 2017 plus Graham Arnold's current strongest playing group, set against the annual leagues ranking compiled since 1991 by the International Federation of Football Historians and Statisticians using the performance of clubs in domestic and international competitions.
The 23-man squad that beat Uruguay in 2005 to break a 32-year World Cup drought in 2005 had nine players in the EPL, three in Serie A, one in La Liga, and a further three in the Dutch Eredivisie - 16 players in the top 10 leagues that year.
Now Arnold can call on two in the EPL, two in the Bundesliga - and one in Scotland's Premier League, whose inclusion in the current top-10 list is certain to provoke debate.
The decline in international strength has mirrored the increasing difficulty in securing qualification since that Uruguay play off in 2005, as other Asian nations have reaped the benefit of investment in national team programs.
Four years later Pim Verbeek's squad that qualified for the 2010 World Cup with two games to spare (and topped its group) had nine players in the leagues ranked the top 10 in the world - seven in the EPL, and one each in Serie A and the Bundesliga.
Holger Osieck's side in 2013 left it to seven minutes from the end of the last group game to secure its place in Brazil 2014, with six players in the top 10 leagues.
That number had fallen to four in the squad that beat Honduras over two legs in 2017 under Ange Postecoglou.
The slight increase to five in Graham Arnold's strongest current squad comes from Scotland climbing 16 places to reach the top 10 strongest leagues, according to the IFFHS, though the SPL is not highly regarded in elite football circles.
The numbers go to the heart of the ongoing debate over why Australia is producing less elite talent, more than a decade since a series of foreign technical directors overhauled the development system for the best young players.
The Socceroos are expected to stroll past Chinese Taipei on Tuesday night, but far stiffer tests lie ahead in next year's second phase of qualifying.