Franz Beckenbauer branded the English national side as ‘kick and rush’ during last summer’s World Cup. Some fans were incensed – but when England received a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of a fledgling German side, national uproar only echoed what Der Kaiser had said. All has gone quiet again though – but long-term grassroots investment is vital.
No bones about it – even Frank Lampard’s ‘ghost goal’ couldn’t paper over the cracks. The Three Lions were comprehensively outplayed, and the scoreline didn’t flatter Germany. Youngsters like Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller showed technical brilliance and creative flair, whereas England’s veterans looked sluggish and dithering.
The solution, however, isn’t throwing in young and naïve players and saying ‘have a go’. Nor is it paying a yearly salary of £6 million to Fabio Capello and expecting him to repay in miracles. The talent pool at Capello’s disposal is far more limited than the tabloids would have you believe – as the saying goes, you can’t polish a turd.
Proper nurturing is fundemental. England has a wonderfully competitive culture of football, with kids and adults alike looking forward to lacing up their boots before a Sunday afternoon showdown. However this ‘win at all costs’ mentality, where youngsters are forced into a results-driven environment, is a stumbling block to development. Last month, in a Sheffield under-9 league, Young Owls beat Junior Blades by a staggering 46-0 scoreline – enough to put some kids off for life.
The Netherlands – three-times World Cup finalists – have a different attitude. The Dutch introduced the world to ‘Total Football’, and now all of their professional clubs are required to have a functioning academy. Kids realise their potential by being allowed to play expressively and without worrying about scores – not by doing drills and playing percentage-football.
The Spanish side that mesmerised onlookers with tiki-taka were deserving winners of the 2010 World Cup. Every single squad member had come through Spain’s national youth system, with many representing their country since under-15 level – but, crucially, kept out of the limelight. At a domestic level, many clubs have an academy known as a cantera – literally ‘quarry’ – where the coaches can polish the diamonds that they find in the rough.
With the media-hype that surrounds any talented young Englishman, too many players these days experience too much, too young – and consequently end up on the front pages of the newspapers, rather than the back. Here, too much emphasis is put on teenagers breaking through as soon as possible. Spanish kids only make their debuts when they’re ready.
Things aren’t all bad in England – Sir Alex Ferguson recently banned his youth-team from wearing brightly-coloured boots, fearing they were being too flashy without the ability to match. However it came to light in 2009 that England only had 2,769 registered UEFA ‘B’ licence-holding coaches, while Spain had 23,995 – a truly embarrassing ratio. The course typically costs around £300 – Capello’s annual salary could have funded 20,000 new coaches alone. With the right support, English talent might thrive again.
This article was submitted for publication in Doncaster Rovers’ matchday programme for the npower Football League Championship match against Watford on Feb 26th 2011.