Recently the Boy took part in the regional age group competitions for football here in New Zealand and whilst the Boy’s region didn’t set the world on fire, walking around the playing fields I couldn’t help but notice the similarity with which each team set up to play football. From match to match I watched, transfixed, as team after team passed the ball from the back, from fullback to centre-half to the central-midfielder and back out to the wing, it was as if each team was following a well-defined script and here is the crux of the problem, they were.
New Zealand Football has created a Whole of Football plan to bring football in New Zealand as close to the standards of the rest of the world as is possible and whilst I applaud this initiative I am concerned the end product may be a conveyor line of robots programmed to play a certain style of football to the best of any ability that they have. Whilst, in the long term, this approach may achieve the goal of acquiring parity with similar ranked nations I fear the vast majority of the products from this conveyor belt will end up, at the very best, utility players such as Stoke’s own Geoff Cameron. Players who do a job and nothing more.
During the, aforementioned, regional tournament I found it disturbing that players who showed a glimmer of individuality were harangued by their coaches for not playing the ball they had been drilled to play over, and over and over, again in training. It didn’t matter that the innovation may have resulted in a chance on goal, they were being criticised for displaying a trait that is revered at the pinnacle of the game but is treated with ever increasing suspicion as you move down through the football pyramid, flair.
Growing up as a kid in the eighties when I thought about flair players it was South Americans who came to the fore, then the Eastern Europeans came to the fore, before, in the early part of this century African footballers began to grab the headlines. As time progressed the number of flair players who heralded from the big European football powerhouses dwindled, the recent Spanish team being the exception that proves the rule. My theory for why this is the cases is that these footballers when they were growing up played football for fun, their own version of jumpers for goalposts, where rules were thrown out of the window and nutmegging your opponent was worth more than being on the end of a slick passing movement. The Whole of Football plan details in depth how a child should be trained but can you train the improvised on a practice pitch?
In the UK it is now standard procedure for children identified early in their lives to be snapped up by academies but what is probably not common knowledge is that these children are often banned from their clubs from playing football for their schools or even kicking a ball around with their mates. Is this the end product which the Whole of Football plan is working to? Do we really want our kids thinking of football as an activity which stops them enjoying spending time with their fellows? And out of the hundreds (or thousands) of children who give up the pleasure of playing jumpers for goalposts how many actually make it?
The Whole of Football plan is a step in the right direction but ours is a small nation with an even smaller number of children interested in the round ball game and therefore we need to ensure these children remain in the game. This means nurturing their individuality not indoctrinating them with conformity therefore, along with the standardised coaches’ playbooks, let them also be themselves because the games at the regional football tournament were, if I am honest, dull because every team knew what the other team was trying to achieve.
Holland in the seventies and Germany in the last decade may have had success with a one system for all approach to their age groups but this is because they had the numbers to make this work, New Zealand doesn’t.