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With plenty of exciting young Australian footballers plying their trade abroad, here's a look at five of the most exciting talents aged 21 and under who appear destined to have very bright futures in the game.
Having made the move abroad as a 16-year-old, Chris Ikonomidis' sacrifices are now finally paying off. After impressing in his hometown of Cronulla, Sydney, Ikonomidis was invited to a trial with Premier League giants Arsenal as a 14-year-old. Although the trial was unsuccessful, he joined NPL NSW outfit, Sutherland Sharks, shortly after.
Success with the Sharks in the Oceania leg of the Manchester United Premier Cup earned he and his teammates the opportunity to play in the finals in England. And Ikonomidis relished the chance, performing superbly in the tournament. His highlight, however, was undoubtedly when he scored four goals in his team's 7-0 demolition of Wigan.
Atalanta had taken notice of the young Aussie's exploits and duly offered him a trial. Unlike the Arsenal try-out, though, this one worked out beautifully for Ikonomidis, as he was rewarded with a contract from the Serie A side on his 16th birthday. Although leaving his family behind was something he found hugely difficult, he persisted and got through that tough period. It must be said playing alongside fellow Australian, James Troisi, greatly assisted his adaptation to life in Italy too.
Courtesy of some wonderful showings in Atalanta's youth sides, his 18-month stint in Bergamo came to an end when he agreed to move to Lazio on a three-year deal.
The technically gifted attacker quickly went about making a name for himself in Lazio's U20 squad, and despite having to wait until December 2015 to make his senior debut in the Europa League against Saint-Etienne, his encouraging form in the Primavera amazingly saw him receive his full international debut in March 2015 vs Macedonia. Making his senior debut for his country before doing so at club level was indeed a highly rare and unique achievement.
Ikonomidis has since continued to progress nicely. Spending the second half of the 2015/16 season out on loan at Serie B outfit, Salernitana, helped him gain vital top level experience. While on the international scene, he now has six caps, including running out against England and the country of his family's origin, Greece.
Interestingly, Miroslav Klose, who's now departed Lazio, took the now 21-year-old under his wing and helped him adjust to life in the Italian capital. Learning from the man who holds the record of most World Cup goals in history, with 16, is clearly something Ikonomidis appreciated and enjoyed.
“He definitely [took me under his wing]. He helped me to adjust to the first-team setting. I consider him a good friend,” Ikonomidis explained.
“When I made my debut in the Europa League he was over the moon for me.”
The future certainly looks very bright for this talented young Aussie, who's most comfortable playing as a number 10 but can also operate out wide. It's great to see through hard work and perseverance, all his sacrifices are now finally paying off.
The Melbourne born attacker, who plies his trade for Inter Milan, has created a real stir back home, as he's recently admitted he'd love to represent Australia, despite featuring for Italy at youth level. Piscopo began his football journey with the Melbourne Phoenix and later joined the Genova International School of Soccer.
He first popped up on Inter's radar whilst on a football tour of Italy, where he scored five goals in his eight matches. Piscopo subsequently joined the Nerazzurri as a 12-year-old and steadily progressed through the ranks. The 2014/15 term was a real standout for him, however, with the languid playmaker finishing the campaign as the club's top scorer at U17 level.
Things unfortunately didn't go so well in
2015/16, with a fractured ankle severely derailing his campaign. Meanwhile, it's been encouraging to see that Inter manager, Roberto Mancini, has promoted Piscopo to train with the first-team on many occasions. When speaking in his interview with Australian newspaper, The Herald Sun, he gives a fascinating anecdote from his first session. “I wanted to show myself and (Rodrigo) Palacio came up to me and said I can see you’re a good player but you need to know when to pass and when to dribble,’’ he recalled.
“It was my first time with the first team, I was excited, nervous, happy. I got a few knocks.”
For now though, the 17-year-old will concentrate on cementing his spot in Inter's reserves and on continuing to develop his craft. If he can do precisely that and keep up his strong rate of improvement, a call-up to the Socceroos should become a reality sooner rather than later.
Daniel De Silva
The fact Daniel De Silva made his A-League debut for Perth Glory as a 15-year-old back in 2013 serves as a testament to his talent. After impressing domestically, it didn't take long for the smooth moving, technically sublime attacking midfielder to garner interest from Europe. The likes of Manchester United, Everton and Inter Milan were quick to register an interest, but visa issues scuppered any potential move back then.
Blessed with incredibly quick feet, razor sharp control and wonderful vision, his talent has always seen him rise above others in his age group. At just 15, making his aforementioned A-League bow and gaining selection to Australia's U17 squad illustrated this aptly. And he continued this trend in remarkable fashion by earning a place in the Socceroos' 2013 U20 World Cup side at just 16, making him the youngest player to ever represent Australia at the tournament.
“He’s risen to every occasion and if he continues to be given the environment and the opportunities that he’s getting at the moment, he’s definitely good enough to be that player that Australia’s been crying out for,” said his former Glory coach, Alistair Edwards.
“His touch direction is the best I’ve seen in a young player,” he added. “He can literally make a decision, when the ball comes to him, on where that ball’s going to go with his first touch. He’s very dynamic over a short area.”
Having impressed for Perth Glory the following season, everything looked in place for De Silva to seal a dream move to AS Roma in 2014. This wasn't to be, however, as the Giallorossi pulled out of the deal because they couldn't fit any more foreign players into their squad.
The following year, he finally got the opportunity to move abroad and signed for Dutch club, Roda JC on a two-year loan. He struggled to adapt to the physicality of the league, and his cause wasn't helped by playing under a coach, Darije Kalezic, who used him sparingly. Running out 11 times, only once as a starter, for the club certainly wasn't ideal, but Kalezic has now moved on, so the 19-year-old will be hoping he can really kick on next season.
“It’s a terrific experience for him and he will only grow there,” said Perth Glory CEO, Peter Filopoulos.
All things considered, the future looks to be a very bright one for this wildly gifted trequartista. He just needs to be given an opportunity to prove himself at Roda.
Tom Glover's exciting upward trajectory since joining Tottenham Hotspur as a 15-year-old has been extraordinary. Considering he only began goalkeeping at the age of nine, his rise has been nothing short of spectacular. Now third choice keeper at Spurs, behind Hugo Lloris and Michel Vorm, he would feel a palpable sense of vindication in his decision to take the plunge and move to England at such a young age.
“At the start it was obviously tough – coming to train with the Under-18s at 15 years old and moving away from my family at such a young age is obviously the hardest thing a young person could do so I had to mature very quickly,” he explained.
Just like Ikonomidis, Glover's another success story to come out of the Sutherland Sharks' setup, where he started in the U11s. It was as a 14-year-old, though, where his first big break came, when Spurs handed him a trial in 2014. The following year, after proving his class for Tottenham's U17s in the Spartak Cup, Glover received a scholarship to join the academy, which he's taken with both hands.
Glover's fantastic willingness to learn has subsequently seen him improve markedly in his two years in North London. After a solid first year in the U18s, he quickly transfered his splendid form into the U21s, with his wonderful all-round ability and rapid development ensuring he's gone through the levels seamlessly. He's now training with the first-team and relishing the chance to work alongside Tottenham's many brilliant players. “Working with Hugo Lloris, Michel Vorm and Luke McGee, who has really pushed me – as well as our coach Toni Jimenez and Rob Burch (Academy goalkeeping coach) – can only improve me and I feel like I’ve made good progress, but I need to keep going now and keep striving to get better,” Glover insisted.
“My targets for the moment are to keep playing regularly for the Under-21s, keep training with the first team and being involved in matchday squads and build on things from there.”
“I am doing well and I am improving all the time. When I’m not playing I keep a close eye on Lloris and Vorm – I try and sponge all I can from them really.”
On the international front, meanwhile, it would appear it's only a matter of time before the exceptional shot stopper, who's been capped at youth level by Australia, is selected at senior level.
At just 18 still and having extended his contract to 2018 last December, his immediate focus will be on fine tuning his craft and hoping to challenge for minutes in the Tottenham first team.
If his tremendous progress so far is anything to go by, Glover should have no trouble whatsoever making the next step up in class.
By virtue of being born in America, his Greek heritage and growing up in Australia, Panos Armenakas was one of a very rare breed of players eligible to represent three countries at international level. Despite appearing for Greece at U17 level, the Aussie FA would've undoubtedly been over the moon at his decision to choose them, for Armenakas is one of the finest prospects to come out of Australia in recent years.
It was clear from the moment he joined Sydney Olympic as a boy that Armenakas was a very special talent. Going to Barcelona as a 6-year-old to embark on a three week trial evidenced this emphatically. He advanced through the age groups at Sydney Olympic with ease, before opting to join AC Milan's academy in Sydney. Thereafter, he really began to alert the attentions of some outstanding European clubs, including Ajax, Barcelona and Manchester United.
Prior to him eventually deciding to join Watford in 2012, the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal were also hot on the heels of the left footed number 10. An encouraging two year spell with the Hornets ensued, before he made the switch to fellow Giampaolo Pozzo owned side, Udinese, in 2014.
It must be said that Armenakas has gone from strength to strength since joining the Serie A outfit. He's really caught the eye with his dazzling skills, slick playmaking ability and capacity to find the back of the net. Playing futsal throughout his upbringing has certainly provided him with the technical gifts needed to shine at this elite level.
A testament to his quality comes by way of the fact Nike has already jumped on board to sponsor him. Moreover, when Udinese signed him up on a professional deal at just 16, he became the youngest ever Aussie to sign professional terms for a major European club.
“I’ve always seen him as a talent beyond anything we’ve ever produced in Australia,” gleamed Australian football expert, Les Murray.
A key member of the Zebras' U19s over the last two seasons, the Californian born hotshot is hoping to make the step up to the senior squad for the 2016/17 campaign. “I feel that I have grown over the last two seasons both as a player and as a person. I am learning and being challenged on a daily basis,” he told FourFourTwo.
“My skills have improved and tactically the Italian game is helping me grow. Being surrounded by great coaches and players is something I am not taking for granted.”
“The goal I have set for myself for next season is to establish myself in the first team and playing on a regular basis,”
Expect the man who's already been capped by Australia at U17 level, and who was named by The Guardian as one of the top 50 young talents in world football, to make a huge impact with both club and country in 2016/17.
His unmistakable talent should see to it.