Meet the youth guru who discovered Irankunda & plotted ‘mission impossible’ against the Socceroos

From playing for Gremio, to leading minnows the Solomon Islands against Guus Hiddink’s Socceroos, Airton Andrioli has taken a unique path to becoming Adelaide United’s youth guru. KEEPUP’s Sacha Pisani charts the Brazilian’s career and impact on football in SA.


Airton Andrioli was back home in his native Brazil when he received a call from the Solomon Islands Football Federation president with one question: “Are you prepared to come do mission impossible?”.

That mission centred on a David vs Goliath battle against Guus Hiddink’s Socceroos in the final Oceania World Cup play-off before that famous date with Uruguay in 2005.



Andrioli had links to Australia. He was married to an Australian and had spent two years playing for West Adelaide in the National Soccer League (NSL) before a brief coaching stint with Canberra Eclipse in the early 2000s.

Now, he had just a month to quickly get the footballing minnows up to speed – a national team that had not been together for more than a year.

“I was very surprised when I received the call from the president, but I accepted the call because it would certainly be a fantastic experience,” Andrioli told KEEPUP ahead of Saturday’s Isuzu UTE A-League Semi Final first leg against Central Coast Mariners.

“Two weeks later, I was on my way to Honiara.

“It was a massive challenge. The national team had not been together for over a year. No football games nor any training camps. I had a week to select the squad and then fly to New Zealand for training and a couple of friendly games against some local teams, before flying to Australia.”

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There was nothing simple about this already daunting task against Australia’s ‘Golden Generation’ – a team headlined by Mark Viduka, John Aloisi, Mark Schwarzer, Tim Cahill, Brett Emerton and Lucas Neill.

This was a country ranked 138th in the world, going head-to-head with a nation 88 spots above them on FIFA’s list.

“Our preparation was very poor, and to make matters worse, I was only informed the day before the game that our main player, Commins Menapi, was suspended,” Andrioli recalled.

“The little preparation we had was all around him, so that was not good news.”

The two-legged tie was Hiddink’s first taste of Australian football and while his Socceroos cruised to a 7-0 win in Sydney 18 years ago, the return leg in Honiara was not as straight forward.

In Hiddink’s own words, it was a “disaster” as the Socceroos scrapped home with a 2-1 win over the 10-man hosts. Australia went on to end their 32-year FIFA Men’s World Cup exile, but it was an unforgettable experience for the Brazilian.

“Our team wasn’t anywhere near at the fitness level required for a match like that. We lasted 20 minutes but after the first goal their quality was far too much for us to handle,” Andrioli said of the opening leg at Sydney Football Stadium.

“There was no chat with Guus, I don’t think he was interested in talking to us. He was particularly upset after the second game in Honiara. They had to work very hard to get the result against 10 players, as we had a player sent off when we equalised from a penalty.

“He didn’t want to shake hands after the game, I’m sure he had his reasons.

“Nevertheless it was a great experience to be part of these games.”

His time with the Solomon Islands – which extended for four years and included being in charge of the men’s and women’s teams as well as the beach side – forms part of a unique story about a man who has been the brains behind youth development in South Australia since 2009.

Andrioli grew up in Novo Hamburgo – a city around 70km away from Porto Alegre – where Gremio and Internacional are based.

Named after Gremio legend Airton Ferreira da Silva, he had grown up supporting the Brazilian giants, who even paid a “substantial” fee to prise him away from his hometown club. He even signed a professional contract for Gremio at the age of 19.

Then, years later, he somehow found himself in Australia, thanks to meeting his Aussie wife while playing in Switzerland.

“I knew nothing. The only thing I knew about Australia was Skippy the Bush Kangaroo because I used to watch it on black and white TV in Brazil. I didn’t know they played football,” Andrioli said as he went on to play alongside Stan Lazaridis, Ross Aloisi, Richie Alagich and Pablo Cardozo at West Adelaide.

“We ended up sending a video to a friend who knew Eddie Thomson and Raul Blanco. We had already started the process of trying to come to Australia. We spent 11 months doing it.

“I came to Australia in 1994. Got married six weeks later. Signed for West Adelaide.”

Laying the foundations in South Australia

Adelaide United are reaping the rewards of a youth program established by Andrioli 14 years ago which has resulted in a remarkable production line of talent, headlined by: Nestory Irankunda, Luka Jovanovic, Jonny Yull, Bernardo Oliviera, Alex Popovic, Madanha, Ethan Alagich and Musa Toure. Mohamed Toure, Al-Hassan Toure and Yaya Dukuly before them.

It is a famed production line and Adelaide United are reaping the rewards of a youth program that was established under Andrioli 14 years ago.

He was technical director of Football South Australia from 2009 up until 2020, working with now Adelaide United head coach Carl Veart and Richie Alagich. It was a tenure in which the program was almost shut down.

But having established that pathway through the federation, Andrioli is now Adelaide United’s youth guru – the club’s Head of Youth Football and the head coach of their youth team in NPLM SA, while working as an assistant to Reds boss Veart.

Carl Veart (L) and Airton Andrioli (R). Image source: Adelaide United

“We started with a vision, to provide opportunities for a bigger pool of players to come into a better environment rather than having talent spread around everywhere. That’s how we started,” he recalled from his time with the federation.

“I remember the first meeting we had with the local clubs back then, the presidents. The only thing they didn’t do was throw rocks at us when we proposed what to do. It involved changing how we selected players and how we brought them in, starting from the age of 13, then gradually moving to 14s, 15s (which is National Training Centre these days) and then eventually having a pathway to Joeys and maybe Adelaide United.

“The process of identification for us was the key thing. We provided young players from the age of 12, which is really hard to make a decision on these kids. So we gave them the chance to spend five-six months in that pool. We set up a program where we set up coaching education for the coaches involved and extended the time these kids spent with us. Kids are constantly changing.

“We wanted to provide a longer period of time for these kids to show themselves without putting too much pressure.

“When they changed the national technical director…. They came to our state and wanted to close all the programs, like they did in every program. I said, ‘I’ll take you around to see what we do and if you can give us two good reasons for us to stop doing what we’re doing, we will stop’. We were developing coaches who were working at the clubs. So it was a double impact. He takes it back to the club and implements it. It was a vision for football to grow.

“In the end, he said, ‘you have a fantastic setup but we still want you to shut down the program’. Lucky we had the backing of our CEO Michael Carter. We stuck with our programs here, we did not close. Every other state closed NTC.

“At the time we had a problem with the transition of players coming through our programs to Adelaide United. The people involved (at the time) were putting a blockage.

Carl Veart (L) and Airton Andrioli (R). Image source: Adelaide United

“When Carl moved into becoming Adelaide assistant, that started to change because Carl was working with me. He had been the NTC Coach. Carl was there for seven years. He knew the door had to open for them to move on.

“Eventually when the door opened and there wasn’t a blockage, people started to see. Carl being here, he believes in he young players like we all do. It makes it easier.”

Identifying talent

Who says you can’t win with kids? Adelaide have put faith in youth and we have seen a number of exciting prospects emerge from the Reds thanks to that established pathway.

Mohamed Toure, who made his Ligue 1 debut for Stade de Reims last week, made his senior bow with Adelaide and remains the Isuzu UTE A-League’s youngest ever goalscorer. This season there is Nestory Irankunda, who has the most goals before the age of 18 in the competition’s history, and Luka Jovanovic.

But this does not happen overnight. It is a result of years of work in South Australia.

“The players come with a basic foundation of football. They start from that age of 12, 13, 14, 15. It’s not a magical formula,” Andrioli said.

“It’s just people with the right mentality who recognise the different stages of the players and the development required. They have an advantage over other players coming from the outside. The majority of players we bring into the senior, U20 or reserves program, they come from the NTC underpinning program.”

Andrioli added: “When we look to bring players up to our level to the Adelaide United youth program, we look at players with a sound technical base. When you see a boy like Nestory, some players have that naturally. That gift of understanding and reading the game.

“Being street smart. You don’t see that a lot in Australian players. That’s why Nestory from the start had that kind of thing.

“We always make this joke in Brazil that you have to coach kids here and tell them you have to scan and look over your shoulders. You do that from a young age in Brazil because if you don’t look over your shoulders in Brazil, they will pinch your wallet.

Nestory Irankunda (L) and Luka Jovanovic (R). Image Source: Adelaide United

“The environment in those places in South America, they are conducive of producing people that are thinking for themselves from a young age. In Australia, life is much easier and that’s why I’m living here in many ways. It’s not do or die to become a footballer like those places.

“With Nestor, it was easy because he had that in himself. He just needed the other side of things – a bit more education and understanding of structures and the discipline of football.

“The fundamentals are important to me because if you have that as a starting point, you can develop all the other attributes. We don’t say many young boys who have that natural ability to do things without looking, to do things in more of a street way. Not a lot of that in Australia.”

‘I’ve never seen a player who could bring that out’

Irankunda is the poster boy of Adelaide’s program and the hottest property in Australian football.

The 17-year-old is still to start a match for Adelaide, yet the teenage sensation is box office entertainment. He is the name on everyone’s lips and a player that fans, young and old, queue up to watch.

Irankunda has scored eight goals in his A-Leagues career – eclipsing the record set by Toure (seven) before 18. Five of those goals have come this season, while he was called into the Socceroos squad by Graham Arnold in March.

But it is not just his goals. It’s his pace, power and willingness to run at defenders and take the game on. Just look at the moment he entered the Elimination Final against Wellington Phoenix, within minutes of his introduction, he had won the ball, brushed off the defender and surged 50 metres to release Craig Goodwin, who won the penalty to double the lead.

Andrioli was the man who discovered him.

“I was working with the federation still and the Under-13s that played in the U14s competition. Nestor was playing that U15 team of the Raiders. It was a midweek night and I was watching,” he said.

“He did what Nestor does. Exploded like a bomb. He also did some things that you knew you get both – the good and the other stuff that needs to be worked on.

“I spotted him and followed him. Offered him to come into the NTC when I was in charge of that. I met his mum and dad.

“Then I moved to Adelaide and brought him in. What happened was, he played for the reserve team and scored a hat-trick.”

While Irankunda makes a splash in the competition amid reported interest from German champions Bayern Munich, he is still at the beginning of his journey.

Andrioli is quick to stress one key element of his development, though he can’t help but be taken back home to Brazil when watching the prodigy.

“Lets put it this way, I’ve been in Adelaide for a long time, there’s never been a player in those moments, it reminds me a bit of my upbringing,” he said.

“When Nestory’s on the sideline and his name is called up, and when the first ball is played to him.. what happens with the crowd.

“It’s just beautiful to watch. I’ve never seen a player in Australia who could bring that out of people because there’s a sense of excitement and expectation.

“Normally a ball is played down the line and when Nestory starts running, it’s beautiful to watch. It’s not beautiful for the full-back he is running against. It’s something about him, the style and the way he does it.

“When you see those games, you feel like you’re in South America. People see that talent, they know what they can give you. It’s a pleasure. We never had this here, if I remember, in South Australia. A player who could bring that into the game.

“For me, it’s about the education. Understanding you have to navigate the ups and downs. I do believe Nestor has that because if people pay attention to what he’s been doing in the last few games. He also has high expectations.

“In one of the first games he played, he scored a free-kick against Newcastle Jets and didn’t score the next game. He actually called Carl Veart after and apologised that he did not score. He was 15 back then. He believes he can do it but he needs to understand it won’t happen all the time.

“He is actually maturing on that. He isn’t coming into the game all the time and doing something that’s high risk, take three or four players on to score. He is putting the foot on the ball, finding a pass and picking his moment to do what he does best. It is a sign of maturity in recent weeks.

“You won’t always be able to do that. You have to put yourself in the best scenario to do things. He is learning all the other traits. It’s crazy to expect now that when he comes on, we expect him to not only score a goal but one of those goals. To me we talk about lack of maturity, it’s a lack of maturity on us. Hang on, you don’t put that pressure on Craig Goodwin who is a Socceroo.

“He has to grow. The do or die is he able to navigate through the ups and downs, the disappointments of football and when people criticise. If he can do that, he can go to a high level. Only he can answer.

“I don’t try to teach him this or that because I think he knows it. He will use it at the right time, so he will become unpredictable. I always try to do that with the young boys so we don’t take away the unpredictability. He has that in an abundance.”

What does the future hold for Nestory?

Irankunda has been the subject of mooted interest from Bayern, who are among a reported list of European clubs eyeing the in-demand star.

Veart said “there’s still quite a few clubs” interest in Irankunda, who would be loaned back to the Reds should a deal materialise.

Because FIFA regulations prevent Irankunda moving to Europe before his 18th birthday – February next year, a month after the transfer window closes – it is likely he will be at Coopers Stadium next season irrespective of what happens. 

“From a natural talent point of view, he has everything going for him,” Andrioli said. “If he can tick all the other boxes, I wouldn’t be surprised. He is such a beauty to watch.

“Even at training at times, you play a ball down the line for him to accelerate and put the cross in… if you go to a club like Bayern which people have been talking, I think he will catch people’s eye because of that.

“That might open the door to be given a chance. I know they have top players there too but being Nestor and the way he is and knowing what he can do, I wouldn’t be surprised if the opportunity is given to him that he doesn’t do similar things to what he’s done here.

“We had issues with him at the club and we had to be patient. People were thinking we can’t deal with that. It was a lot of pressure. The kid is young. His family background, the way he grew up, it’s a bit different.

“He can go a long way. What might happen, eventually he has to go to a different environment where he can see the level.

“Going to the Socceroos is like ticking a box from an education point of view. You start seeing the level and can’t go any other way. If he goes into that environment with 24/7 football with good people around him, he can flourish even more.”