Nestory Irankunda and the unbearable weight of expectation on young shoulders

<span>Photograph: Graham Denholm/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Graham Denholm/Getty Images

Nestory Irankunda is one of Australian football’s brightest talents; tipped as a future Socceroo, a face of the A-League Men, a key cog in Adelaide United’s attack, and the subject of reported interest from Bayern Munich. He is also 17 years old. In the legal sense, he is not even an adult; unable to vote, drink alcohol, or move overseas to continue to take the next step in his career until his 18th birthday next February.

Both of these things are true. And yet their simultaneous validity creates an awkward level of angst – the nuances, expectations and conventions they would generally grind against each other, if not operate in outright opposition. It’s not a particularly modern problem. Teenagers and elite sport are nothing new, but it is heightened in this modern digital age.

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The juxtaposition arrived at something of a nexus at the weekend, following Irankunda’s dismissal in the dying stages of the latest, spiteful match against Melbourne Victory. With just seconds remaining, he reacted angrily towards referee Alex King after Chris Ikonomidis appeared to foul him multiple times, and avoid any kind of sanction. It earned Irankunda a yellow card, his second, for dissent. Furious frustration bubbled over as he was escorted off by teammates and coaches. Things were perhaps not helped by Connor Chapman’s advice on where the tunnel was.

Regardless of whether Ikonomidis had grabbed enough material to suggest he was taking the ‘can I have your shirt’ trend to an extreme conclusion, Irankunda should not have reacted in a manner that drew a card. This probably won’t be the first or the last time he comes in for extra attention and, importantly, players were informed before the season started that a crackdown on intimidating behaviour towards referees was coming. Both Irankunda and Adelaide coach Carl Veart admitted that the player needs to keep his cool, and labelled it a learning experience in a young career.

Veart was also correct when he observed after the match that figures like Irankunda need protecting from the persistent physical treatment he received on Saturday. That is supposed to be policy: the protection of skilful players from excessive fouling and/or violent challenges was adopted as a specific focus by officials last season.

Conversely, Victory’s moves to target the teenager on the pitch, and the booing that rained down from the stands, are part of football. Intimidation of the opposition’s better players has existed since time immemorial – bad players don’t receive the same attention. It’s up to the referee to draw a line on the pitch, and as long the crowd doesn’t cross into unacceptable areas in the stands, it’s play on.

It is also relevant that Irankunda is a teenager; research has demonstrated that in emotional contexts, an adolescent’s ability to control impulse is limited compared to children and adults. Irankunda can and needs to be better, but to judge him for not reacting the same way as a grizzled veteran is unrealistic. His coaches should be aware of this and account for it.

It’s all very nuanced. They are only some of the factors. And maybe that’s where the lessons are.

Veart was asked about the weight on Irankunda’s shoulders – not just on the field, but off it too. From being made the face of the league’s new direction at 17 years old to the expectation he will be a Socceroo, or go to a club like Bayern and thrive. The coach said he probably does need just as much protection off the field as on it. Fortunately, Adelaide and the national setup seem aware of that.

Maybe a question that also needs to be asked is what will we do in the future if we decide he isn’t reaching the almost impossibly high standard we’ve set for him? Maybe it’s appropriate that on Saturday Irankunda shared the field with Daniel Arzani, who went to the World Cup at 19 and was anointed as Australian football’s chosen one, only to be devastated by injuries, ill-fated loan moves and struggles to take the next step. Contempt, if not revilement, followed amid perceptions he had let people down.

Irankunda will be discussed in the future. His talent makes it inevitable. He’ll move overseas, probably to Bayern, and we’ll all get excited. Amidst all of it, though, it would benefit everyone to remember there are two realities with Irankunda – as there are with Garang Kuol at Newcastle or any other young prospect. There is the talent and the person. We’ll hold them to the standard of the former, critiquing and analysing them in the hope they’ll realise their potential. That’s football. Discussion, and hope, are what make it great. But we’d do well to always remember the latter, too.