I’ve seen the future and I’m worried

Australian and British Soccer Weekly, Tuesday 9 October 2007, p. 14.

Last month I was at the 25th annual conference of the British sports historians in Stirling and after lunch on the Saturday a few of us watched the last half-hour of a Scottish Premier League match between Rangers and Kilmarnock. It was played at high speed with lots of one-touch football and very late in the game, substitute Jean-Claude D’Archeville scored the winner for Rangers after a typical move reached the edge of the Kilmarnock penalty area, and a couple of defensive mistakes allowed him to slot the ball past the keeper.

Afterwards before returning to the conference we watched the last stages of a series of Under-12 games taking place outside the sports centre on a beautifully level grassed area. The pitches were about half of full size, the goals were smaller and there were seven players, not eleven in each team. Kitted out in the colours of the leading Scottish clubs these boys, and they were all boys, are members of the Pro-Youth system, which identifies and promotes football talent.

They were well organised, coached and disciplined and played the same one-touch high-speed football we had seen on the television inside. Running off the ball, tactically aware, keeping their formation, they were doing just the same as their seniors we had seen a little earlier. Some parents were watching quietly from the sidelines but there was little vocal comment on the game. The referees were male and professional, athletic and efficient. We saw almost a carbon copy of the Rangers’ goal, when one team sliced through another to penalty area but the finish owed a lot to a defensive blunder.

I doubt if the equivalent Australian game would have been similar and I wondered if our youngsters would have accepted the regimentation which lay behind this style of play. Not once did we see a youngster take the ball and run at an opponent and try to dribble past him, he would always look for the pass or the shot, and only occasionally would an attacker knock the ball past a defender and try to turn him and regain the ball through outrunning him. It was all very disciplined but almost soulless and lacking the sort of individual play which used to characterise the game, at least among children.

It would be completely wrong to condemn this approach on the basis of fifteen minutes viewing and there are so many good things about the support that young players are getting in this and similar programs. But I confess to being a little worried about the future of the game if this is how our best coaches and planners are moulding our youngsters. There will be no return to the incoherence of playground football where the aim was to keep the ball under control and dribble with it for as long as you could resist the attempts by a mob of others to rob you by fair means or foul. The passing game began with Scots professionals at the end of the nineteenth century, so what we saw at Stirling was not really new, but still I wonder if we have got the balance right in what we are encouraging our youngsters to do.

And I am not alone. Carlos Bilardo, coach of Argentina when it won the World Cup in 1986 and still a keen observer of the game has been in England recently. This is what he said to Marcela Mora y Araujo in the Guardian.

‘If you watch English football, what they do well is delivery from the defence to the midfield. But the tendency is always to return to the area. And no stopping, no one stops the ball. It’s all shoot, shoot, shoot.’ He is gesturing with his hands in perpetual motion, fast, as he adds: ‘From here to there, from the first minute to the 90th, all running, running, running. One touch, gone. A touch, gone. It’s like tennis.’

A man of world football, Bilardo is a believer in the growth of Africa. ‘Wherever you go there, they’re all playing football all the time. Everywhere.’ He thinks Africa will undoubtedly become the next big thing, and they will surpass South America in time. Of English football, he concludes: ‘These people have tactics. And strength. Their weakness is technique. In Africa they have technique, but they lack tactics. In Argentina, we still have a fairly good mix.’

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