Luca Balestrazzi ready for 2019 with Brisbane City FC
Luca Balestrazzi is a man who wears many hats.
Joining City as a junior coach after an encounter at the 2017 Gold Coast Cup, Luca has gone on to lead the under 18’s side to the NPL premiership and grand final and will this season be the club’s general manager.
It has been a rapid rise for the Italian, but Luca is confident that he will be able to wear both hats simultaneously in what us expected to be a busy 2019 for Brisbane City FC.
“I had a laugh with [Robert] Cavallucci and Martin [Millard], because if they do some research, they don’t find a coach and general manager, they are normally worlds apart,” Luca said.
“I have that kind of management background in Italy, so I know how to look after this sort of thing, but for me personally and professionally it is a massive challenge because I basically have to switch between a football brain and a general manager brain, but I am not stressed because I am managing football related issues.”
“Also it is not easy to find a club that gives that kind of trust to someone after 6-7 months, and it’s very hard to find an NPL club that are trying to constantly push the boundaries and involve as many coaches full time as possible.”
Eliminating trials ‘key’
Luca has reason to be excited after a busy off season in which City announced a number of initiatives aimed to push the club to the forefront of player development in the country.
One way City has done that was to eliminate trials, offering a number of players multi-year contracts starting from this season, something Luca and the existing football department had been pushing for a long time.
“Behind the scenes this took a lot of work, a lot of paperwork because it is new, nobody else is doing it,” Luca said.
“With trials you have 30-50 players all trialling over two hours and we don’t see the talent. Now we are turning to ongoing talent development throughout the season,” Luca said.
“We will, and have continued to invite players from specific positions but we are keeping the core of the teams together. That was the talent ID, the no trials policy for the core of the team – of course though, there will be spots available depending on the team and long term agreements.”
That change impacted the junior levels of the club, but the next change is a big one at the other end of the spectrum, and will have a lasting impact on Luca as under 20’s coach.
“There was a massive change from what has been in 2018, [which was] a massive season in the way that the under 20’s and under 18’s played. Even though they both won their premierships, the system wasn’t working in our opinion from a football department perspective.
“We are really lucky to have someone like John Kosmina, who is keen on using an NPL category as it should be used, giving young players that have certain characteristics the opportunity to play and to move to higher levels.
“We have been doing that with the first team. We have an average age of about 20 in the first team, but there was kind of a blockage in the under 20’s somewhere. If you talk with Francesco [Zanoncelli], Nick Green, myself, Tom [Laxton], anyone with a European background, if an under 15 or 16 is good enough, they have to play under 20’s. They have to be involved with the first team, slowly, gradually.
“Here it is a little bit tough to get the box ticked to make it happen, but we have restructured everything by including the under 16’s into the seniors cohort, implementing a kind of synergy between teams, instead of having a fixed under 18’s team, a fixed under 20’s team, a fixed under 16’s team.
“So we are going to push as much as we can, and of course it is going to be performance based, it’s going to be a true introduction to seniors football.
“If an eligible under 20 is not performing well and he would do better in the under 18’s, he will be pushed down. If an under 16 is doing well, he will be pushed up. There’s going to be that kind of synergy.
“Then hopefully, we are going to move into a space where Football Queensland is going to trust 100 per cent the football people at Brisbane City and if we think that an under 15 or an under 16 is good enough technically, tactically, physically, mentally, to be part of a senior team, we are going to make it happen.
“That’s the vision, the philosophy behind it.”
Development at the heart of Brisbane City’s philosophy
Luca outlined that the aim of any club in the NPL is to develop talented players, and that City’s commitment to do so was one of the principle reasons why he joined the club in the first place.
“That’s another reason why I came here last year,” Luca explained. “I was here talking with Kossie, with Rob Cavallucci, everyone.
“When I saw a team work this way with the juniors, having this kind of ambition, even taking the A-League bid out of the equation, but having full time staff, having the ambition to grow, having the ambition to find partnerships with Virigina United and with Gregory Terrace, that was massive for me to decide to come here.”
City has one of the youngest lineups in the entire NPL, frequently fielding a team comprised more of teenagers than battle-hardened veterans.
However, the City hierarchy has acknowledged that there might be a requirement for players with more experience in the side to help assist in those players developments.
“We endorse and completely support the vision of Kossie, and we want the NPL to have that kind of vision behind it when we select the players, select the teams,” Luca said.
“On the other hand, we have a community [of supporters] and we have to improve performance-wise and results-wise in the first team, after a couple of years without finals, so this year we are going to try and bring in some experience.
“We are just going to balance it out a bit better because this year was fantastic, we had plenty of extremely young players, interesting, talented players coming through, but it was a bit too much.
“To boost and improve the performance of the players we have, it is necessary to bring in two, three players with the right characteristics on the field and off the field to help these players grow and help the team grow and hopefully take us to the finals. That is the whole idea of it.
“Extremes are always wrong, a team that is extremely young is like a team that is extremely old, and without paying a lot of money, we’re going to balance it out as much as possible.”
So the emphasis will still be on youth and giving young players a chance at City?
“Yes,” Luca said emphatically, “every day of the week.”
Players moving up
Part of developing players is to see them move on to higher honours, a situation that has affected City more than most over the last couple of years, with players being selected for A-League Academies.
With City’s own A-League bid on the back burner for now, Luca acknowledges that players moving on to higher things is a fact of life, but he hopes that the system will change and allow junior clubs to be rewarded for their work in developing talent.
“It is always sad you know, because when you farewell a player, for me, with the Italian background, it is like a component of your family leaving.”
“Football wise though, when a player leaves your club, to go to a higher level, in my opinion, we have done our job.”
“Our system [in Australia is] a problematic system, where we invest and we work hard to produce and develop that player, and we get nothing in return.
“As a general manager, I look at and I think it is wrong. Hopefully we can set something up more similar to Europe where there is compensation, otherwise what is the goal in working for 14 years to produce a player only to then receive an email saying ‘he is coming to us, bye.’ What am I doing it for?
“I am positive as always, I think slowly, slowly, this country is changing, for the better in football and hopefully this is going to be another change.”
‘Unbelievable’ SAP group
The players that will most likely be affected by any change are the current crop of SAP players, a group that Luca highlighted as, “Unbelievable”.
Luca sees this cohort as the future of Brisbane City, and outlines that with the quality group of coaches the club has assembled, they have the best chance to progress through the system and come out as senior team players.
“What I told our under 9’s, is you are going to be the first team of this club in 12, 13 years time, because they are incredible.
“With Francesco, with his background as player, as a coach, we see a SAP age group, even from other clubs in Brisbane, but especially from Brisbane City, the standards are incredible. Unbelievable.”
“We have SAP players that I really look at them and I hope I am going to be at Brisbane City in 10 years time to see them play and coming through the system.
“The coaching line up, from Kossie in the senior team, down to the Mini Gladiators [under 4’s] with Tom Kenny, the NPL plus SAP and our Academy plus has a coaching lineup that is… I want to see other clubs outside of Queensland to see if they have anything close to that.
“Add to that our strength and conditioning coaches, a goalkeeper academy with Billy Lumley, it is a club that provides so much in an NPL environment. For those players in the SAP program it is massive what they have in front of them.”
Key to those relationships working is the recruitment of former Milan player Francesco Zanoncelli, a coach with a proven track record of assisting develop players around the world through the AC Milan Academy and a key acquisition that Luca felt was key to get involved in the club.
‘I was extremely keen to bring Francesco in because it was a massive opportunity I didn’t want to lose, and Francesco was extremely humble and professional to accept a position with the under 15’s.
“I don’t know many coaches of that level, that quality that would be happy to come and work within the club just to be within the club because he believes in what we are doing here at City and be happy to do whatever it takes.”
Doing whatever it takes is something that parents of young footballers have to do out of necessity.
Luca says that the reality of having to pay to play NPL football means that the club has an obligation to ensure that every player gets the maximum out of the club from what they put in.
“From a junior perspective, we are asking for a lot of sacrifices from our junior parents.
“We are asking them to spend a lot of money and a lot of time to be a part of this club. We have to look after them and give back to them as much as can.
“It goes back to the system that football is affected by in this country.
“I wish we had the same funding as other codes to make it more accessible, but that is another story. What we need to do is make sure that for every dollar, for ever minute that they spend at this club, we have to be the best we can.
As for the upcoming season, Luca echoed John Kosmina’s aim for the senior team to return to finals for the first time since 2013, and says that off the field, everything is in place to ensure the
“We need to keep the momentum up from 2018,” Luca said. “Keep bringing under 18 and under 20 players up into the first team, and for the first team, our goal is to go to the finals.
“I want to go to the finals, this club needs to go to the finals. And also the last 16 of the FFA Cup. I love the competition.
“In 2019, we start from a really good space, but there are lots of challenges ahead, but it is exciting. We are ready.”