My visit to the 2023 Coaches Convention is quite likely, it seems to me, to be my last to this enjoyable get together.
I go back a long way with the Convention, back to my first memory of a New York session (in those distant days the Convention was always held in New York). Allen Wade
— then the Director of Coaching at the English Football Association — delivered a rousing talk on how England had just won the World Cup. So I guess that must have been the 1967 Convention. Over 50 years ago. I can’t claim to have attended every Convention since then — maybe I’ve been at about a third of them.
I love the Convention more as a massive social event than anything else. Meeting up with distant friends and all manner of soccer people, old faces (well, getting older) and new faces, the bringing together of coaches from all over the country for face-to-face, live meetings — all the conversations, agreements and arguments, the laughter and the frowns, there’s plenty to be enjoyed in all of that.
An enjoyment that makes the whole thing worthwhile. Which is just as well, for over the years the Convention has drifted far from the vital excitement that excited me all those years ago.
Listening to Allen Wade in 1967, and later chatting with him, brought the satisfying feeling of being in touch with the very highest levels of the sport — this was England’s Director of Coaching we were listening to, and England had just won the World Cup.
Now, let us make a prodigious leap forward, a 56-year leap — and we touch down in January of this year. We are in Philadelphia, at the Convention again. Just a month earlier, Argentina had won the World Cup — a splendid tournament, climaxing in what can claim to be the the most exciting final ever.
By the standard that was set in 1967, we should be listening to a leading personality from the Argentine coaching hierarchy. If not, then some other leading Argentine soccer personality — please
. . .
No such luck. Inexplicably — in fact, shockingly, shamefully— this Convention seemed unaware of Argentina’s (and Lionel Messi’s) triumph. I would go as far as to say that this Convention was unaware of Argentina in any shape or form. No, it was even worse than that. It was not only Argentina that the Philadelphia Convention organizers had written off the soccer map. Everywhere south of the border was ignored.
The Convention website gave us a lengthy list of 75 presenters— people or organizations giving lectures or clinics. I scanned this list, looking for anyone who would be telling us something about developments in South — or Central - America. No luck. How about a Spanish name, then? No, I couldn’t find one of them either.
The closest link I could find with anything that looked as though it might have something to say about the Latin game was presenter Michelle Pye
, the Concacaf Women’s Program Coordinator. Which does not sound close enough.
I discussed this with a knowledgeable colleague, who shot me an exasperated glance and then, with exaggerated patience, explained that it took many months to put together the Convention’s schedule. Argentina had won its title only one month before the Convention opened. Did I imagine the organizers could have predicted the Argentine victory? No, there just was not enough time to arrange anything honoring the new world champions — or to analyze how they’d won.
I gave that some thought — it was not without merit. Of course I already knew I was adrift in a bleak scenario for Latin soccer. I just hadn’t imagined that it could get any worse. But it did. It got abysmally worse.
Exactly how bleak turns into bleaker is revealed by checking not for absentees, but for countries that are present
at the Convention. They are listed as official Convention “Presenting Organizations.” You will find Scotland, represented by the Scottish Football Association, and you will find Ireland, represented by the Football Association of Ireland.
OK. It was patently clear that the Convention schedulers could not have known that Argentina would win. But there was something that the Convention biggies must
surely have known with cast-iron confidence when they made their laughable choices. Namely that neither Scotland nor Ireland had the remotest chance of winning the World Cup. Not with Scotland placed at No. 42 in the FIFA World Rankings and Ireland at No. 48. Never mind the added complication that neither nation had even managed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup tournament.
Those stats suggest that there will not be many trophies in the immediate future of either nation. Hardly surprising — neither Scotland nor Ireland has ever won a major international tournament.
Yet these two nations, both quite clearly not
among the sport’s elite national teams, are the only foreign national associations that appear among the Convention’s presenters.
So, whatever merit the excuse that there simply wasn’t time enough to fit Argentina into the Convention schedule may have carried was very quickly washed away by taking a look at some of the nations that were
At the beginning of this column, I called the Coaches Convention “enjoyable.” I have always found it thus. But the enjoyment has two faces. There is the sheer pleasure of the Convention as a huge social gathering. There is always that, and it offers a great experience for the attendees.
But the Convention offers more. It is, or should be, educational, instructional — still enjoyable experiences, but in a rather different way. The Convention should be a valuable aid to all the coaches present, a way of keeping up with the latest developments in the sport of soccer.
Which is where it falls down, sadly and badly, and slumps to the floor with a dull thud. Apparently the organizers believe that when it comes to offering technical knowledge to the Convention attendees, the soccer worthies from Scotland and Ireland are good enough.
Well, are they? Not much point in pussyfooting around the issue. Putting forward Scotland (FIFA ranking No. 42) and Ireland (FIFA No. 48) to keep American coaches au fait
with significant trends in the modern game (never mind tips on how to actually win games), while completely overlooking Argentina, the world champion, makes about as much sense as entrusting the building of your new supersonic jet fighter plane to Albania.
I’m not suggesting that Argentina is the only country that can impart good soccer information — I would estimate there must be at least half a dozen such countries. But I do know, with certainty, that neither Scotland nor Ireland has any claim to membership of that select group.
Something has gone seriously wrong with the Convention. It has evidently forsaken its worthy role as an exchange forum for authentic and useful information about the sport. It prefers now to act as a market place for a large variety of soccer products, virtually all of which can be classified as dubious — i.e. unproven.
Thus, we are invited to purchase the new fantastically functional soccer balls (Goalkeepers will hate them!), or the miracle tactical programs (Never lose another game!), or how about our unbelievably cunning set plays (Better than Brazil!), or our amazing body-building regimens (Just one pill a week!)? And don’t miss the new ways of building an impregnable defense (yes, more defense — these modern coaching schemes rarely seem to bother about scoring goals).
I am hoping, of course, that the Convention can rescue itself from the financial clutches of these soccer miracle cures, and can return to serving as a trustworthy event that features only participants with something significant to say about the sport.
Anyway, it is past time for the Convention to take a hard look at itself and its policies and actions. Because the intrusion of commercial interests is not, by any means, the worst of the Convention’s failings.
We arrive — once more — at a key failing (I consider it the
key failing) of American soccer: its lamentable failure to recognize the importance of the Latin element in this country. To measure just how absolute that failure is, you don’t need to conduct expensive and lengthy surveys. You can do it quickly and easily by noting how often anything to do with the Latin game is featured at the convention. “Never” is probably an exaggeration, I may have missed a reference somewhere — but the answer is mighty close to Never.
The Convention, year after year, continues to snub the USA’s vast soccer-devoted Latino community. In doing so, it continues to do immense damage to its own aims of spreading soccer among Anglos in the United States, and — something of a distant prospect — of winning the World Cup.
The hope of World Cup victory is not an impossible dream. I feel sure it will happen. But it will happen a lot sooner if the people who run soccer in this country will embrace the Latinos and their soccer. When the Convention starts to feature, regularly, talks and clinics about the Latin game, and how it needs to be incorporated into the American version of soccer — then we shall know that something truly game-changing is afoot.
Photo: Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos