When I referee amateur soccer games at the weekend, both men's and youth, they follow a similar path for the first few minutes. From the kickoff, the ball will be played back to the defenders. The defenders will then pass the ball among themselves, involving maybe the goalkeeper and a central midfielder. Lovely stuff. Tiki-taka. Pure Pep. Flawless soccer, on the ground, straight to feet. The other team doesn't get a sniff of the ball. Possession stats for the first two minutes: 100 percent to zero.
Then the opposing forwards decide to put some pressure on the team in possession. Does the ball then move up the field in perfect triangles in a series of wall-passes before we see the first chance of the game? No. At the first sign of stress, the hitherto assured defender or goalkeeper has only one course of action in mind. Hit it high and hit it long. To hell with the plans of your coach, Pep Wannabe. Safety first, even if that means our so-far carefully nurtured possession stats are in the bin.
There's an alternative to pretty passing and ugly long balls, of course. It's called dribbling. In amateur games, however, for every player you see dribbling the ball out of defense, you'll spot a coach on the touchline jumping up and down and screaming from the top of their tongues: "Pass the ball! Whack it long!" For me as a referee, the two minutes of quiet time are over. The following 88 will be all speed, pressing and shouting. Plus, a lot of heading and hectic errors.
That doesn't just apply to amateur soccer. On Tuesday night, I watched a level-three (League One) English professional game between Cheltenham Town and Lincoln City. The object of the game seemed to be to keep the ball as far away from both goals as possible. I don't recall a single player embarking on a successful dribble. The dire, dispiriting game got the result that it deserved: a 0-0 tie.
And yet, what do we want to see as spectators and lovers of the game? Artists with flair, naturally. Players with imagination and style. Yet sadly, we no longer expect it. Should it happen, it's treated like a bonus novelty. As though we'd gone to see our favorite band from the 80s who had pledged to only play "the new material." You stand there wanting to like it, but it's only an approximation of the reason why you're a fan. Then, as an encore, they play one of the old hits after all. Finally, you're entertained!
"I go as often as possible to the soccer field," the German federation coach Hermann Gerland told kicker magazine this week. "And what do I hear from coaches: 'Pass! Pass! Pass!' or 'Press! Press! Press!' I never hear 'Dribble! Dribble! Dribble!' That's blocking creativity." Gerland is one of three coaches the DFB has appointed to develop a new plan for coaching youth soccer. As witnessed by the national team's group stage exits at the last two World Cups, the lack of effective strikers and exciting wide players (including defenders) goes all the way to the top of the German game.
And who were the two most exciting players at last year's tournament, who led their teams all the way to the final? Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé, who are not revered around the world for their ability to track back, knock it long or go in hard. It's their elegant motion and their nimble agility that spectators yearn to watch. We love nothing more than to see a feint, a trick, a touch or a surge that leaves a defender on the floor.
Given that soccer is so fixated on marketing itself nowadays, you wonder why more clubs and federations are not focused on this aspect of actually entertaining the people who pay so much to consume it. Look — here are two wonderful, mesmerizing sportsmen. Everyone who loves soccer loves to watch them. Why don't we encourage more young players to thrill the stands, rather than focusing purely on methods that will yield results produced by effective but dull and forgettable teams? Keywords: Mourinho, Jose. And a million youth team coaches who think that showing trophies to the parents that pay their wages has priority over developing players who can do more than run very fast and play for safety first.
Gerland is charged with implementing a youth training concept that moves away from what he sees as the current obsession with rondos, to offer more all-around practice sessions. His colleague Hannes Wolf, coach of the German U-20 men's team, says, "It's important to leave behind the 7-v-4 or the 8-v-8 group tactical training. With our concept we want to teach all skills, for all positions. We've incorporated in our training plan 53 playing elements from around 60 that are important in soccer, with less emphasis on high balls, crosses and headers." Almost all of the drills are conducted in small groups.
"If you have two fields at practice playing 4-v-4, every kid gets 200 touches," says Wolf. "With 8-v-8 on a big field, maybe 50. What's more fun for the player? What's more effective? Multiply that by 10, 100 or 1,000 training sessions. Which will ultimately be the better player?"
He'll need to get back to us on that 10 years down the line. I suspect, though, that we already know the answer.