15 Min Read
Sep 22 2023
In the past 12 months, both the Australia Men’s and Women’s National Teams have achieved record finishes in their respective FIFA World Cups. The country even co-hosted the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup and reached the semi-finals in front of their home crowds. These milestones have been achieved during the performance and operational management of James Duvcevski.
In his current role as Performance Director, he is focused on leading senior and youth National Teams to international success and overseeing Football Australia’s elite development programmes.
“I’ve been in football most of my life. I began playing at a young age and briefly played professionally before pursuing a career in the administration of the game. I was 24 when I stopped playing and focused on my studies before the journey in football began (2016) by taking me to Football Australia to work in their technical department. At the time, my role was focused on the strategic framework and implementation of their coach education and elite academy schemes across the country.
Since 2019, I’ve led the high-performance programmes of our National Teams, including our men’s team at 2020 Tokyo Olympics and 2022 FIFA World Cup. It has been a rewarding progression throughout my time within our national teams, an incredible opportunity to represent our nation and work towards our football aspirations. My professional growth and leadership development eventually presented the opportunity to lead the programmes of the youth men’s national teams as part of a holistic pathway into the senior team.
After the World Cup in Qatar, I accepted the position of General Manager of National Teams. In this role, I became responsible for leading the management of our 11 National Teams, including the Socceroos and Matildas (men’s and women’s respective national teams). We have around 100 staff members in the department all collectively aiming to achieve international success and hit our long-term targets. The priority is always on-field performance, however in my current role as Performance Director (Executive), I’m also tasked to balance a focus on off-field commercial and government relationships to provide the best resources we can to our teams.”
Being accountable for so many staff who are all working towards a collective goal is clearly a challenge in itself. Yet leaders are also accountable to stakeholders for the management of long-term strategy whilst maintaining agility to adapt to short-term pressures.
“An ongoing challenge we face is finding a balance between the short-term performance of the senior national teams and the investment into long term player development for our youth national teams.
In Australia there are several sports that football must compete with for funding and engagement. We have the domestic game of Australian / Aussie rules football as well as rugby and cricket, and although the country is large we are actually a relatively small country in population. The recent success of the Socceroos and Matildas has highlighted that successful teams will always draw the attention of the community in participation growth, commercial partnerships, and public interest. Therefore, it is essential that we properly resource our teams so they can perform at their best.
However, we have a unique geographical position that means we are incredibly far from the rest of the footballing world. Approximately 40-60% of our high-performance budget is spent on international flights to competitions (in comparison, European nations spend 10-15%). There is comparatively very little to invest in areas of long-term programmes after those costs are accounted for and this is why we are always seeking innovative efficiencies.
As a result, a key focus of our strategic framework in youth player development is to construct international relations with national federations in Europe and the Americas (we are fortunate to already have strong ties in Asia via the Asian Football Confederation) to assist in hosting our national teams at competitive development tournaments. I would welcome anyone within the Association of Sporting Directors network to reach out to me directly if there are opportunities to host us.”
The most significant cause of change in recent years was the Covid-19 pandemic; it altered how every industry operates. Many of the innovations in response to the unique situations that arose have remained a key part of how organisations function, and there are clearly lessons to be learnt from the adaptation required by international football teams.
“That was an incredibly complex period for any travelling national team. It was highly stressful for players and staff given the different requirements implemented by each country. We had instances of key players and coaches being ruled out of matches hours before kick-off, staff being away from their families for almost 6 months due to the difficulty of re-entry to Australia. All of this was going on whilst the team was trying to perform at our best in World Cup Qualifiers.
In the short term, to manage each crisis was effectively assessing the safety and impact on the individual and/or team first, and then the impact on performance. Managing multiple crises simultaneously was challenging but our core principles remained in each decision. We may not have got everything right but our approach led to consistent care and safety across the teams and success on the pitch eventuated.
What we learnt from a long-term perspective was the importance of creating an environment within our National Team camps to be about more than football. Player and staff wellbeing has become a key element of holistic performance in recent years and that process was sped up during the pandemic. We now have dedicated Player Wellbeing Managers across all our Men’s and Women’s National Teams, and we want our players to always be in familiar environments when they come into camps.
There are players who could be playing with clubs in England or Scotland and the next day they are in Tajikistan, Vietnam, or Laos to play in World Cup Qualifiers. These are significant culture changes so we have a checklist of things we try to do to ensure it feels as homely as possible when players are with us. At the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup we even flew a barista in from Sydney to serve Australian coffee!”
During the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup, Australia achieved their highest ever finish. This was despite a loss in the opening group stage match to the reigning 2018 champions and narrowly missing out against the eventual champions. The ability to inspire others from moments of defeat is imperative for leaders to guide their teams to success at the highest level.
“Belief and a shared purpose are crucial. That was the most consistent message from Head Coach Graham Arnold throughout the tournament. Since he took over the role ahead of the qualification campaign in 2018, the target was to be “the best Socceroos team in history”. Of course the tactical and technical preparation leading into the FIFA World Cup was key for performance but Graham created a collective culture where belief that we would succeed was ingrained in our collective psyche on and off the pitch.
This also drove another key principle of marginal gains which we placed more emphasis on than in the past. The mindset across all our staff to capitalise on any opportunity to improve team performance by even 1% was crucial. Everything from the quality of mattresses and bedroom lighting, to the mapping of our basecamp’s ‘flow of movement’, was carefully planned so that on and off-pitch marginal gains accumulated to a performance increase that would get results. The players performed incredibly well in the wins against Tunisia and Denmark, as well as the honourable performance against eventual winners Argentina.”
In 2020, Football Australia released the results of “The Performance Gap”. The study was designed to create original insight into the perceived underperformances of the national youth teams. Since publication, the findings have been implemented by Football Australia across a range of strategies and the success of the project is evident.
“The study aims to assess opportunities for our talented players from Under-17 to Under-23 to regularly obtain valuable match minutes, similarly to their counterparts in other parts of the world, and to identify a competition structure in Australia that supports player development and transition into elite football.
We learnt that our domestic league had what we called an ‘Experienced Player Identity’ which meant the average age of the competition was significantly higher than the domestic leagues in countries such as Netherlands, Croatia, Belgium & Uruguay, where young players were afforded sufficient opportunities to obtain match experience for their development. Coaches often did not want to test young players and give them an opportunity because of a perceived risk.
As I mentioned previously, we also have the economic difficulty that prevents our National Teams regularly competing against the best international teams. This meant less elite football minutes again and that players were not as prepared as they could be for World Cup qualifiers. If the youth National Teams do not qualify for these tournaments then players can miss key development and their opportunity to be watched by international club scouts.
We analysed data across 35 leading professional leagues which showed that there is no relationship between Points Per Game and % of Match Minutes played by U23s. The perception that playing youth players poses a legitimate risk on match results is unfounded; there have been multiple league champions across the world where most match minutes were played by players under the age of 23.
As a result of the study and other factors that impacted clubs during the pandemic, since 2021 the average age of players obtaining significant match minutes in our domestic league has declined. This has led to more of our talented youth National Team players experiencing first team football and driving international transfers to renowned overseas clubs.
Australia co-hosted the FIFA Women’s World Cup in the summer of 2023. This edition of the tournament was unprecedented in terms of the scale of operations, finances & engagement; a clear reflection of the growth of the women’s game. There is often a pressure for host nations to go deep into the tournament, and the Matildas certainly met that target by achieving their best ever finish at the World Cup.
“Regardless of hosting the World Cup, this Matildas team had full belief in their ability individually and collectively to succeed against any nation. Whilst their performances and 4th place finish captivated our nation and exceeded the expectations others may have had, I’m personally not surprised by this team’s success. Preparation for the tournament started in 2020 when the women’s version of the Performance Gap study was conducted. The findings were quite different to the men’s study. We found that match minutes weren’t necessarily an issue but one problem we had was that the Matildas were not competing against elite international teams as much as other nations. Compared with the other 11 nations in the report, Australia played the second fewest senior international matches over the last four-year cycle.
Another issue we found was that a core group were playing most of the senior match minutes and this was impacting the development of other players. The study found that Australia Women’s National Team squad depth was the lowest of the analysed nations, with just eight players having debuted for the Matildas since 2017. Of these, only two have played over 200 match minutes and so our reliance on ‘core’ players was clearly having a detrimental long-term effect.
Naturally, our aim was to tackle these issues over the coming years leading into 2023 and so our management team confirmed consecutive fixtures against top 10 nations, whilst giving more players crucial exposure to ensure they became experienced players by the start of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. As this was occurring, more players had exposure to top level teams and so international transfers increased, similarly to the male players. At its simplest form, this strategic approach in our preparation set the foundation for the success we have all been fortunate to experience this summer. It was a dream performance and result at a home World Cup; it has inspired an entire nation.
The Women’s World Cup hosts have done an incredible job in creating a legacy for women’s sport, not just football. Having attended quite a number of matches in Australia, it has been a joy to walk around the streets of Sydney seeing Matildas’ jerseys and young girls and boys with small footballs aspiring to be a professional. I think the awareness of the potential and now the investment in women’s football is a delight to see; it will only get better.”
Leaders are responsible for developing their teams and guiding them to continuous long-term success and a key aspect of this is innovation and development. It is crucial that organisations identify new tools to improve and optimise their operations.
“Our National Teams programs all use Smartabase as a data collection tool. It is an extremely effective tool for both medical and technical management but is also easy-to-use. Recently we have explored the use of Teamworks as a schedule and information app for players and staff. The main benefit being the recent acquisition of Smartabase by Teamworks has resulted in both systems merging into one. We are always seeking efficient platforms to simplify our processes and information sharing within the team.”
The importance of fostering connections and industry networks is routinely highlighted in continuous personal development (CPD). However, Duvcevski offered a unique perspective into the strategic benefits for organisations when their leaders activley create valuable relationships.
“Networking is an essential part of professional development. I think most people view networking as a facilitator to your next role but it goes far deeper than this because you are actively exposing yourself to top level operators within the industry. By connecting with the world’s best, you have the opportunity to obtain their knowledge through shared experiences, particularly on matters of project management, risk scenarios, industry changes/innovations, problem solving & leadership. By connecting with Sporting Directors across the globe over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of being welcomed into their environments. These top professionals have often been an open book to share their ideas and challenges, which has enabled me to become more effective in managing a diverse portfolio of programs, high performance staff, stakeholder relations and industry innovations. Being part of Association of Sporting Directors will continue to aid my professional development, and our National Team programs will benefit as a by-product. Again, I welcome anyone to connect with me should they have interest in sharing their knowledge and/or if my experience in international football and high-performance can help them or their organisation.”
The progression of developing one’s networks is often to mentorship. This can benefit an individual greatly whether they are offering support or receiving it. The Association of Sporting Directors is aligned with this belief and continues to foster such mutually beneficial relationships for its members.
“I strongly recommend all aspiring professionals, regardless of your position or experience, to find a mentor or someone you can trust professionally to challenge the way you think and your perspective of how things should run. Being true to your values as a leader is always key to strategic direction and decision making. We all report to someone and often our ideas or expectations of how we want things to operate may not be fully understood or appreciated. In such instances it is important to take a step back and look at the big picture. This is something I learnt in recent years, when trying to balance department expectations with strategic goals of the business.
The next area of my development is giving back to the industry. This will open me up to being challenged more often, and sharing my knowledge to an array of industry professionals will make me vulnerable to being challenged and accepting that it is all part of further growth. That is why I’m excited to have joined Association of Sporting Directors; the experience and knowledge within this group will certainly be a driver of my own professional development and it will further affirm that trial and error is part of my journey in growing to achieve top class results.”
The success of both the Australia Men’s and Women’s National Teams as well as the career progression of Duvcevski is a testament to his leadership and commitment to development. There has been significant cultural change within the national teams and a clear impact on player development during his time with Football Australia. The future of Australian football internationally and domestically is clearly bright.
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This article was written by Matthew Macdonald. If you would like to feature or recommend someone for our ongoing Insight series, please email [email protected].