My calendar says March 1. But, quite possibly, global warming has advanced things. The weather is spring-like and there is a hint of April 1 in the air. Or so it seems to me.
What am I to make of this? The Philadelphia Union has sent me a press release announcing the appointment of an official club tattooer, or maybe it’s a tattooist. Or even a tattoo artist. All wrong. It’s a tattoo officer we’re dealing with.
Whichever, the Union is looking for a Chief Tattoo Officer. The idea (and I don’t think I needed to be told this) comes from the club’s marketing guys. The Union’s Marketing VP, Doug Vosik, tells us: “This is an exciting initiative ... to provide a revolutionary service for our players and front office.”
Exciting maybe, but intriguing certainly -- especially so as Vosik makes it clear that Union players are among the intended beneficiaries of this move. Well, I’ve long regarded tattoos as among man’s sillier inventions, quite useless, usually unsightly, often regretted. But they are a vogue, so I shall try to rethink.
Can they possibly be of use to players? I guess we’ll soon know, when we start to look at individual performances (tattooed vs. non-tattooed) and team results. Maybe the tats will make a difference -- and the Union, as one of the league’s least successful teams, can certainly do with something different.
I shall revisit the tattoo factor shortly.
Another apparent dose of April foolishness comes from Africa. From Rwanda where, the London Daily Mirror reports, the local soccer federation is attempting to rid the sport of witchcraft. Tricky, this, because witchcraft is itself elusive -- to the point where there are many who deny that it exists at all.
But an incident in a game in December last year has the Rwandan federation worried. The game was in its final minutes, and Rayon was losing 1-0 to Mukura Victory. At that point, the referee spotted Rayon striker Moussa Camara running to the Mukura goalmouth and placing “an object” inside the goal.
The referee yellow-carded Camara, the game resumed and within a minute Rayon had scored the tying goal. Accusations of witchcraft were voiced by the Mukura team.
So, from now on, a coach guilty of using witchcraft will be banned for four matches and fined.
This case of alleged witchcraft takes us a step further because it reveals that the Rwandan authorities not only believe in the existence of witchcraft, but are worried that it actually does work. So what about a Chief Tattoo Officer? Can he have a positive effect on the Philadelphia Union’s soccer skills? Well, given that no one has so far thought to make, never mind measure, the connection, we don’t know whether tattoos work or not. It seems highly unlikely, but we don’t know.
But at least we know, more or less, what a Tattoo Officer is and what he does. The problem with witchcraft is how to identify it. The Rwandan federation admits that it will have to investigate reports from match officials -- because, as an official put it “There is no scientific way to prove the use of witchcraft ...”
What interests me here is the introduction of the word “scientific.” Time for full disclosure. I have, in the past, several times declared that I consider soccer coaching to be a form of voodoo. And I have also written: “the junk sciences, of which soccer coaching is a leading example” (that’s a direct quote from a 1993 SoccerTalk column).
If that sounds like I’ve burned all my bridges to the coaching crowd -- well, I don’t think so. I do believe that coaching has a large element of luck and guesswork in it. Those vague -- but rather attractive -- qualities are part of what I mean when I talk of voodoo. Also included are other difficult-to-define things like instinct, intuition, serendipity and just plain wishful thinking. These elusive, but decidedly human, qualities do seem to me to be as important -- actually more important -- than the laboratory certainties that the scientific approach implies.
And so to our scientist. Meet James Bunce, recently appointed as U.S. Soccer’s High Performance Director. I rush to point out that this is not a coaching job. Actually, I’m at a loss to describe exactly what sort of job it is. Maybe the Federation’s breathless announcement will take care of that. I get the impression that Bunce will be doing just about everything: “initiatives dedicated to enhancing elite athletic performance and improving the development of younger players ... physical development, nutrition, recovery, strength and conditioning, mental conditioning, performance data and performance research and innovation.”
Bunce comes with genuine, not junk, science credentials -- degrees in sports science and sports performance. More impressive though, he can actually claim to real life success in the player development field. He spent eight years with Southampton, the southern English Premier League club that has built up a remarkable record of developing young talent, and can cite Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a young player who benefitted from his methods.
But this time it’s not science or voodoo that bothers me. It’s this business of repeatedly inviting foreigners to come here to tell us what to do. I do not believe we need to be doing that. Especially when they are Brits, who invariably bring with them a baggage of thoroughly outdated and proved-to-be ineffective soccer concepts.
Having surprisingly given up a top job with the English Premier League -- which U.S. Soccer calls “arguably the best professional soccer league in the world” -- Bunce now talks enthusiastically of the future of the American game, and how he can help “accelerate U.S. Soccer’s ability to develop world-class players, coaches and referees.” He sees the U.S. as “a sleeping giant ready to absolutely explode and dominate the soccer scene.”
Ahah -- a feeling that I recognize. Back in 1983 I wrote a story about the encouraging performance of the USA in that year’s U-20 World Cup -- it was headlined “The Awakening of the American Soccer Giant.” Over 30 years ago, and the American giant sleeps on.
Maybe Bunce’s brand of science can bring it to life. But I rather doubt it. The problem is not a lack of science, or of tattoos, or the presence of witchcraft. It is a lack of vision. By which I mean a blind refusal to embrace the full scope of the vast American talent pool.