By Paul Gardner
Here we go again -- in fact, as it’s Frenchman Michel Platini I’m talking about, I can very nicely use the French phrase. It’s deja vu time.
Nearly three years ago, Platini -- then, as now, the President of UEFA -- laid it on us that he had a decidedly sour view of foreign ownership of soccer clubs. That was for starters. Then he went on to lament the fact that modern clubs employed foreign players. Liverpool, he said, with its foreign coach and so many foreign players was “losing its identity.”
Liverpool still has plenty of foreigners, and it still has a foreign coach -- OK, Kenny Dalglish is Scottish, but he’s foreign as far as I’m concerned (and, with an independent Scotland in the offing, he may soon be legally foreign).
So not much -- nothing, really -- has changed in three years. Did anyone think it would? At the time, in 2008, I dubbed him Michel Platitudini because he was simply describing a widely known situation, defining it as a major problem, and not coming up with anything that even posed as an answer.
In an attempt to at least rein in the number of foreign players on a team FIFA President Sepp Blatter has rolled out his 6+5 plan for European clubs -- each must field at least six domestic players, alongside a top limit of five foreigners. That has run into problems, not only with European Union labor laws, but with the top European clubs themselves, who want to be free -- as they now are -- to buy the world’s best players, wherever they come form.
It is this last point that explains all. The world’s best players. If the world’s best players were produced in Europe, if there were a steady stream of them entering the pro sport in England and Germany and Italy and Poland and Russia and so forth the “problem” that Platini espies would not exist.
But the world’s best players do not come from Europe -- or only a few of them do. If European clubs turn to South America and Africa it is because they have learned that is where the talent is. That is, of course, a generalization, but it is one that stands up to close scrutiny.
There is, admittedly, also the financial factor -- that players from those areas, particularly Africa, are likely to be cheaper to buy and to pay. But that factor, with the now ubiquitous presence of agents, is a diminishing one.
The main reason for the rich clubs spending their money on non-Europeans is simply a matter of quality.
But the reasoning should not stop there. The next question is the crucial one: Why are the Latin and African players better?
The answer, not faced up to by Platini, or by Blatter (who has even painted a -- to him -- gloomy picture of World Cup teams made up primarily of naturalized Brazilians) inevitably involves a massive questioning of European soccer, and in particular of its method of nurturing talent.
Which takes us on to European coaching and -- a European invention -- the academy system. If Africa and South America are not yet on the same level as Europe in respect of those items, it is only a matter of time before they will be. At the moment, the gap is what distinguishes, and supposedly favors, Europe. After all, how can Europe not benefit from all those massively financed academies, all those highly paid coaches with their diplomas from the wonderfully complicated coaching courses, all that splendid organization, so say nothing of the social advantages -- such as superior nutrition -- that go with being rich countries?
In fact, a strong case can be made for believing that those apparent benefits compose the biggest part of the problem -- and this is a real problem -- that Europe has when it comes to training soccer superstars.
Firstly, because all those advantages -- probably inevitably -- breed complacency, if not downright arrogance. There is not much room for doubt that they have led to a situation where those in charge of player-development genuinely believe that they have all the answers, and start to propound certainties in a field -- a branch of education, after all -- where flexibility, adaptability and originality should play a dominant role.
Among the advantages claimed for the academy system -- along with such obvious pluses as serious and sustained coaching and regular high-level competitive games, comes the basic fact that everything is well-organized. It has to be. The money spent on the academies (in England, it is calculated that each Premier League club spends a yearly average of $2.5 million) demands that things be properly organized.
Yet that word “organized” is one that should be viewed with suspicion whenever it crops up and is linked to players. It is nowadays considered almost the ultimate in praise for a team to be described as well-organized -- meaning defensively organized. It doesn’t take too much observation to find out that teams described as “well-organized” are invariably dull teams with little to recommend them other than their supposedly superior organization.
Barcelona is, of course, well-organized -- but that is not the first or even the second or third thing that springs to mind as a way of praising its soccer. But when “well-organized” is the only thing to be said of a team, you can be sure you’re in for boredom.
And when “well-organized” training takes over at the youth level -- where it is better known under the title of “over-coaching” -- you can be pretty sure that it’s not going to produce anything unusual or original, or even different.
Over-coaching is a topic that always crops up during youth development debates, guaranteed, yet the mysterious thing is that it is not so easy to identify the over-coachers. Who are they? I’ve certainly never met a coach who admits to such a thing. Which might just mean that the enemy is us, that over-coaching has become so endemic that it passes for normal, we just don’t recognize it when we see it.
The problem that so worries Michel Platini is not going to go away. It is created, firstly by the tremendous imbalance of wealth between Europe and the rest of the soccer world, and secondly by the European inability to face up to the fact that it’s not very good at developing top young players.
We are not short of books and videos and schemes and systems that will tell you the best way (there seem to be any number of best ways) of coaching kids. In this country, because of its worthy devotion to education, those coaching aids are lapped up.
Which puts the USA in the same camp as Europe -- we are having problems, despite all our money and organization and academies, in producing players. The situation was nicely outlined by a recent series of articles on this web site by Paul Kennedy, which showed with statistical clarity that we are almost at a crisis point in our inability to nurture real soccer talent.
Europe attempts to solve that problem by buying up the world’s best young players. But the USA is skewered by both horns of this dilemma. Not only is the USA unable to enter the global market for young players (because of the tight single-entity budgets of MLS teams), but at the same time it finds itself in the position of losing -- mostly to European clubs, though some go to Mexico -- the few outstanding young players it does produce.
There is no obvious way out of that quandary, but certainly making a concerted effort to improve the effectiveness of academy-training ought to be a priority.