In hindsight, it wasn't too hard to predict that a call-up to the Australia men's national team was imminent for young Manchester City midfielder Alex Robertson.
Given the success that Graham Arnold had experienced during the last FIFA World Cup cycle by integrating players born and developed overseas such as Harry Souttar, Jason Cummings and Fran Karacic into Australia's squad, it was inevitable that the Socceroos coach would be on the lookout for more players with "Aussie DNA." He'd be derelict in his duty if he wasn't doing his due diligence on it, really, and it was one of the main topics he was grilled on during the announcement that Australia were set to meet Ecuador in two friendlies this month.
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With Robertson, AS Roma's Cristian Volpato, Parma's Alessandro Circati, Hajduk Split's Noa Skoko and Huddersfield Town's Nicholas Bilokapic all among this selection, it's not exactly a barren or untalented list of potential recruits, either. And while the coach wouldn't commit to being able to lure everyone that had sampled vegemite at one point in their lives into the national setup, he did say that, for a few of the prospective recruits: "I think we will eventually get them across the line." Well, consider Robertson over the line.
The 19-year-old was named as one of four uncapped players named in the Australia squad for the Ecuador series on Tuesday, potentially debuting alongside Melbourne City duo Jordan Bos and Aiden O'Neill and Adelaide United goalkeeper Joe Gauci, while Brandon Borello and Connor Metcalfe have been recalled. Martin Boyle, Ajdin Hrustic, Jamie Maclaren and Mathew Leckie drop out of the squad that featured at the World Cup through injury, while Danny Vukovic has retired from international duty and Joel King and Fran Karacic have been omitted.
The rest of the 26 is unchanged from the group that stunned the world by reaching the round of 16 in Qatar; given a "first crack" at establishing themselves in Arnold's plans for the 2026 cycle in a two-game series being styled as a homecoming celebration.
Though Robertson is now set to become an ultra-rare third-generation Socceroo -- his father, Mark, and grandfather, Alex, had both represented Australia in the past -- the 19-year-old's international eligibility was complicated. He was able to represent Scotland, where he was born while Mark was attached to Dundee, as well as his mother's homeland of Peru. Though the odds were looking increasingly long, England was also a potential landing spot with the youngster undergoing much of his footballing education there and representing the Three Lions in friendlies at U18, U17 and U16 levels. A place in England's squad at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Indonesia loomed as a possibility. At least it did.
Shaking off both a torn hamstring and a disappointing loan spell at Ross County in which his wunderkind reputation was damaged by relegation to the bench, the box-to-box midfielder has mostly been training with Manchester City's first team amid appearances for the youth team in recent months and has been on the bench for Carabao Cup and Champions League fixtures.
There's a pedigree there to suggest that a call-up would have been likely at some point even if he only had a single international option, and Arnold said as much on Monday, but beating these competitors to the punch and getting Robertson into an Australia shirt has clearly been a factor in his call-up. His form wouldn't get him anywhere close to selection for Gareth Southgate's side or, in all honesty, a Socceroos one for a more make-or-break fixture.
But Australia doesn't have the depth of talent to turn away the kind of potential Robertson possesses without at least kicking the tires. It's why, despite turning down a call-up to be a part of the Socceroos' squad in Qatar, Arnold has still not shut the door on Volpato; he and Circati are to be spoken to by U23 coach Tony Vidmar when the Olyroos tour Italy this month.
In circumstances such as these, what's perhaps one of the biggest factors in assessing the call-up isn't necessarily footballing-based at all, but more symbolic -- especially for a Socceroo team under Arnold that has embraced an almost siege-like togetherness and buy-in, with rhetoric centred around making Australians happy and proud.
Though the high-minded ideals behind them are no more immune to corrupting factors than anything in the modern game, international football still carries a level of purity compared to the club game. Domestic football is ultimately a profession in which players have only a limited shelf-life, their employers are ruthless and they need to maximise their earning potential while they still can. International football, conversely, is a privilege, an opportunity to represent a country on the global stage and become part of a team that is the ultimate realisation and symbol of a footballing country.
You don't need to have been born in a country to value and comprehend this, either: Milos Degenek, Awer Mabil, Thomas Deng and Garang Kuol are all magnificent and beloved examples of what it means to represent Australia.
What it means to represent a country on the international stage, thus, is paradoxically open to all and fiercely guarded. A coach needs to take the time to make sure a player is genuine in wanting it and is cognizant of the responsibilities associated with such an honour.
Arnold, for his part, believes Robertson has followed his heart in accepting a post-World Cup call-up, and will be a part of both efforts to win the Asian Cup and qualify for the 2026 FIFA World Cup in North America, but also secure the U23s a place at the Paris Olympics in 2024.
"I've probably been talking to him for over 18 months. It was a matter of one step at a time," said Arnold. "This time when I called him and told him that I wanted to pick him for these Ecuador games, straight away it was 'Arnie, I can't wait.' He was looking forward to it so much.
"It's great that the kid has aligned himself now with Australia. I'm pretty sure once he puts that Socceroos shirt on and feels the emblem on his heart there's only one nation he will play for."
Of course, while Robertson is going to get the headlines -- working as an understudy to Kevin De Bruyne under the watchful eye of Pep Guardiola will do that -- it's important not to understate the achievements of Gauci, O'Neill and Bos in earning maiden call-ups. All three have been standouts throughout the A-League Men season, as has Metcalfe in Germany (who Arnold said is being looked at as a winger, as is Middlesbrough's Riley McGree,) and all deserve their place as younger figures that have the potential to kick on and become important contributors for years to come.
Generational change is inevitable throughout any qualification cycle, and Arnold's move to bring in fresh faces at the very start of the 2026 one, in addition to prospects integrated during the last one, deserves credit.
"I'm excited to see these guys," said Arnold. "I believe in the A-Leagues and believe in Australian kids. It's an exciting moment with selecting this squad but also for the senior players to show great leadership to these younger players through the camps, exposing them to what it means to be an elite player.
"[Bos is] a completely different player to Aziz Behich as a left-back. I don't think I've seen one like this one since Scott Chipperfield. He's a very similar player to Scotty. He gives you that extra way that we can play."
Then there's Nestory Irankunda, the player with perhaps the most fan sentiment behind his push for selection, who will have to make do with a place as a train-on player during the series (although Arnold refused to rule him out of playing.)
Averaging over a goal per 90 minutes in his professional career so far, the 17-year-old represents the latest game-breaking, off-the-bench talent to emerge from the domestic league in recent years. While his path to many minutes at the senior international level is cloudy given that Arnold already has one of those in Kuol, his addition as a train-on player will at least satiate the masses.
Getting the chance to observe the work ethic and standards of players like Aaron Mooy and Jackson Irvine will also provide important lessons for a youngster that Reds' boss Carl Veart has said still needs to learn the week-in-and-week-out grind and professionalism that comes with being an elite footballer.
"He's coming in for these games to have that experience of what it's like to play or be at the top level" explained Arnold. "And I want him to learn quickly.
"That he sees what it takes from an Aaron Mooy or a Jackson Irvine... what it takes to get to the top level. I do believe he will end up at that top level. But just to help him on his way."