While COVID-19 has and continues to have significant impacts on football within Australia, the lack of money within the sport has allowed clubs to play younger players to shine within the league.
Calem Nieuwenhof has certainly taken his opportunity; after starting the first game of the Asian Champions League in the Qatar hub for Sydney due to an injury to Luke Brattan, he hasn’t looked back.
Granted, it has only been roughly two months since his first game, but the composure and technique on show has been enough to win over Sydney FC fans.
Reflecting on his debut for the club, Nieuwenhof said he was nervous before the game.
“Before most games I feel a bit of nervousness which is good, but when the whistle blows and the game starts the nervousness goes away and is just replaced by focus on trying to do the best job for the team,” he said.
This outlines his attitude, which shows in his style of play – he remains calm and collected and focuses on doing his job.
In his first A-League game, he announced himself to Australia with an unbelievable goal from 25 metres out.
It topped off another strong performance from the midfielder – and his composure, technique and vision were similar to two players that he cites inspiration from.
“I don’t necessarily have one idol, but growing up I’ve always loved watching the classy midfielders play such as (Andreas) Iniesta and Xavi (Hernandez) and I would definitely model some aspects of my game off them considering we play same positions,” he said.
The Asian Champions League campaign helped as well.
“I was more eager than nervous for the first a league game, and my experiences in the ACL helped settle the nerves because I had already gained some valuable experience against top-quality opposition,” he said.
There were evident differences between the A-League and the Asian Champions League, though.
He said that ‘from just one league game he could tell that it (the A-League) is definitely more physical’.
However, the main difference for him was the ‘world-class quality that the Asian teams present’.
Nieuwenhof’s calm attitude is reflected by his nickname – his teammates all call him ‘sleepy’.
He says there was no particular event behind it – it simply comes from the fact that ‘I am pretty laid back and not much bothers me’.
However, there was pressure when he first came into the side.
“I’ve definitely felt some pressure just from myself to perform given the great opportunities I was given,” Nieuwenhof said.
“However, all the boys are great, very supportive and welcoming towards the younger boys which is encouraging as a player.”
It also helped that he grew up within the same system as the first team plays – at Sydney FC all of the youth teams play a 4-2-2-2.
This made the transition from the youth team into the first team ‘very easy in terms of the style you want to play’, according to Nieuwenhof.
However, he also mentioned a big step up and that his teammates were extremely welcoming to him.
He displays class on the ball and says training alongside his teammates has helped him improve his game.
“Yeah playing and training alongside top players like Bratts (Luke Brattan) and Ninko (Milos Ninkovic) over the last year had helped me improve massively,” he said.
“I am always paying close attention to what they are doing and looking to replicate these things within my own game. “
Nieuwenhof states that he prefers playing in Sydney’s system with two number sixes.
“When I’m playing with Brattan I will tend to play a little higher as he likes to drop in between defenders to get on the ball and dictate play,” he said.
“I enjoy sitting a little higher as I can link more with the attacking players and join in the attacks.”
But where does he see himself in the future?
For now, he remains focused on ‘playing as many minutes as possible’ for Sydney FC.
However, playing in Europe and for the Socceroos, both remain dreams for him, and if he can keep the trajectory that his career has started on, seeing the 19-year-old in a green and gold jersey doesn’t feel far off.