The Return of Michel Platitudini

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.

8 comments about "The Return of Michel Platitudini".
  1. Fred Lowe, June 17, 2011 at 6:30 p.m.

    I agree with your analysis. The only thing the U.S. might have as an advantage would be if it could offer Permanent Residency for that young soccer player from South America or Africa that would come to the MLS. I don't know the laws on this though.....

  2. Kent James, June 17, 2011 at 10:17 p.m.

    Money, coaching, and complacency may stifle player development in Europe, as PG suggests, but Barcelona has all those, so the question is does it succeed in spite of those things or because of them? One key may be pressure on the player; is it better for a player to feel secure (giving him the freedom to fail) or be insecure, knowing that if he doesn't perform consistently, there are 20 people behind him dying to take his place, which inspires him to work really hard. I think it's hard to get that right (and different players may respond differently to pressure).
    The other important question is how much is talent either born (or self-made) vs. how much can it be nurtured? If it is the former, a program for player development should merely cast a very wide net on a big pool (maybe Africa and Latin America, as poorer regions, have more players playing soccer since it is so accessible because they can play in the streets?), but if talent can be developed, then focusing on coaching and nurturing the potentially good players is key (picking them young and giving them high quality training, competition, nutrition, etc.). Or perhaps, players from LA and Africa are hungrier because a soccer career is so much more lucrative than the alternatives. I'm not sure of the answers, but in the US, I think we need to get as many people playing as possible (meaning keeping it low cost), provide them skills oriented training (lots of small-sided games in a low pressure environment that is fun) and gradually add more specific training (and more intense competition) as they get older. And as importantly, build a soccer culture so that kids learn to love the game (watching and trying to emulate the pros).

  3. ferdie Adoboe, June 18, 2011 at 2:36 p.m.

    This is supported by looking at past winners of both u-17 and u-20 world champs
    over the past 25 years.

  4. Daniel Clifton, June 19, 2011 at 11:02 a.m.

    I like the article by PG and I agree with the comments by Fonseca and James. Good luck getting all of the heads of US Soccer, et. al. to smell the coffee. I am afraid that is not going to happen anytime soon. It is almost like the USMNT needs to suffers some major losses before anyone will wake up. Kids need to be learning the game in their neighborhoods and in their backyards. Soccer is the perfect game for this. We have too much adult involvement in kid's sports.

  5. Chris Ogle, June 19, 2011 at 10:48 p.m.

    To Kent James: You made some very important points in your post. If the only thing that academies accomplish is to stifle all the skill and talent that's flowing into them, which is of course opposite the desired result,then why is Barca's youth academy so successful? I also think the question has to be asked,why is Spain, a first world European nation producing so many good players from 12yrs old and on up? I've been watching them in the Euro U21 tournament this week and they're absolutely fantastic,their players are of the highest skill level and the style of their game is as sophisticated as any senior team you'll ever see. Although I don't know why Spain is such a factory for terrific young players, some of your suggestions for the US make a lot of sense. Using a low pressure,skills oriented type of training system for the young kids, that allows them learn to love the game has to be one of the important aspects. When Messi or any of the other great Barca players are asked in interviews what are the keys to their success, they always say that the love of the game is an important factor.

  6. James Froehlich, June 20, 2011 at 5:33 p.m.

    Chris O -- very good point about loving the game. It reminded me of the recent USMNT juggling video on this site. First of all, their touches were uniformly poor -- especially for the best in the US. Secondly, why was it necessary for the coach to be there, with constant encouragement?? Thirdly, why don't we see a lot more videos of the USMNT juggling individually or in groups. From the time my son learned to juggle, it has always provided him with a fun exercise and me with entertainment. At bottom however it has given him exceptional touch on the ball. Sooooo do our guys ever juggle for the fun of it or only when their coaches are watching?

  7. Oz LatinAmerican, June 21, 2011 at 12:53 a.m.

    When I was visiting SA with my family specifically Brasil and Argentina, the kids were playing soccer everyday, pick up games, no more than 5v5 or 6v6 with goalies. My son and I joined some of them. There always were a mix of different ages sometimes even adults among them. The talent and skills of these kids were of a very high level. The way they played it all seems so natural, spontaneous, and each trying to surpassed the other kid's trick or move. No body was there coaching or trying to tell them how to play! The children in SA develop their skills in games like this, watching the pros play and trying to copy them. By the time they go to the tryouts for the professional clubs in their neighborhoods they are already talented and with all their techniques. The coaches there know that these young players already have a natural talent, and they just need guidance to become a pro. To the contrary here in USA coaches think that they can create a player, like the American sports, is all about the coaching not about the imagination or creativity of the players. Probably not all the coaches believe this here in USA but all the academies and the money spend here in youth soccer tells me that nothing will change here in USA. When the clubs stop charging $10,000 to $12,000 per team to play a mere 10 games for a youth soccer season and establish a real soccer culture like other countries. But that won't happen I'm dreaming.

  8. Neferhotep, June 21, 2011 at 12:33 p.m.

    Ossie, you are spot-on with the cultural advantages that exist in South America for helping make creative players the natural way, they just get to play at first. I think a hard look needs to be taken at Barca's La Masia Academy approach to see if it could help us here in the US. I'm sure though that this approach is probably helped by the fact that the youth they are bringing in to such an environment already have some of the natural talent and technical skills that have been fostered in futbol incubators of Brasil and Argentina, which helps gets a jump-start for the academy by having such talent to work with in the beginning.

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