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Soccer Player Development – Then and Now

It could be argued that soccer follows society or that soccer is a trendsetter for society. After reading this article you can judge which comes first as we examine how young soccer players developed traditionally and how they become professionals today.

THEN

When I say then I mean the time up to the end of the 2oth century, to the late 1990s. It was a transition time for children in how they spent their leisure time. Until then sports was a key activity and in Europe, South America, and Africa that meant soccer. Electronic and internet entertainment was gaining popularity and competing for children’s time.

Soccer was played on the street, in parks, in school yard on make shift fields. Often the goals were made using bags, hats, cans as goalposts. Soccer was also played in organized teams and clubs. I would suggest most of the hours were spent outside clubs. In these hours there was no coaching, skills and tactics were learned through necessity, leading to individual creativity. If you wanted to beat someone in a 1 v 1 situation you invented a move, a fake, and creative use of the body. Passing and shooting techniques were acquired through hours of play and fun competitions. I remember spending hours competing with some friends trying to hit the cross bar from various distances. We were fit because we ran for hours every day.

At the club level teams practiced once or twice a week and played a game on the weekend. Coaches were volunteers with no formal coaching training or certification, just knowledge of the sport. The main job was to figure out which youngster to put in which position and what formation to use. Then practice revolved around honing specific skills and team play.

Players who were particularly talented were noticed by their coaches who might suggest to try out for the youth team of the nearest professional or semi-professional club. If accepted you worked your way up through the ranks until you were offered a professional contract, somewhere between the age of 18 and 22.

In this environment individuality, toughness, leadership, and creativity was developed in young athletes. What was missing was an overarching concept at the national, regional, local, and team level.

This led to countries with the most all around talented players dominating the world of soccer – Brazil, Italy, Germany, England, Holland, and Argentina.

NOW

As more options became available for youngsters, the street soccer concept began to fade away. Participating in organized team sports through joining clubs often remained as the only pathway to playing soccer.

This meant that much less time was spent with the ball each day and each week. Consequently all the benefits of this eroded – less skills, less creativity, less individuality, less toughness.

The leading soccer nations started to lose their player advantage and the dominance of the leading countries waned. It is no coincidence that the wealthier countries suffered most and the not so wealthy countries, whose families couldn’t afford technology, started to rise. Their children stilled played street soccer. And so African, Eastern European, Asian, and generally smaller nations started to become competitive.

This did not go unnoticed by the likes of Italy, Germany, Holland, etc. So they developed new visions and strategies. This gave birth to so called centres of excellence or academies, often mandated to be associated with professional clubs.

Today it often looks like this:

  • Nations have an overarching soccer vision and philosophy
  • Training books, coaching courses, practice plans are developed to implement the vision
  • Coaches are trained and paid to deliver the programs
  • Large soccer centers are built including:
    • Residences for players
    • Schools
    • Indoor/Outdoor fields
    • Rehabilitation Centers
    • Transportation
    • Full time employees
  • National/regional scouting programs scout suitable candidates to entice them to join a center, often at the ages of 10 and up.

This means that children are recipients of a huge service machinery. Everything they need to develop soccer skills, tactics, fitness is planned for them, standardized across a nation. Schooling is looked after until graduation and career development options for the post professional years are offered. No surprise, player agents have an easier time as they know where to find talent. Kids are signed to management contracts with agents at ever earlier ages and professional contracts are offered in parallel. Players transfer between teams at ever younger ages for ever larger sums, they become investments in addition to means of building competitive teams.

It is a valid response in the competition for children’s time, it is a way of engaging them.

The positive results are that the pendulum is swinging back and sufficient young soccer players are spending lots of time with the ball. The leading countries are producing talent again and are slowly regaining their dominance on the world stage. Emerging soccer powers such as the United States, Canada (women), Iceland, Belgium have adopted the academy concept and are starting to catch up. Also it is a good thing to have an overarching national vision for how to best play the sport in a particular country. An analogy from business. Decades ago companies competed against each other, now global supply chains compete against each other. Decades ago soccer players competed against each other in club and national competitions. Now soccer philosophies compete.

On the down side this system leaves a lot of disillusioned young adults behind  – most of the academy residents do not become professionals, yet their expectations were higher than those of the street soccer kids of days past. Individualism has been replaced by standardization leading to a certain lack of individual leaders and characters on the field. Like in the rest of society, the ability to use elbows has been replaced by a certain degree of pampering.

WHERE TO?

I believe in the current system of soccer centers and academies driven by overarching visions, philosophies, and implemented by trained coaches. What is needed is to build elements of street soccer into these centers and into clubs to foster, encourage, and promote individuality. Not everything has to come via the cookie cutter method and strict application of prescribed programs and codes of conduct. The clubs and nations that will succeed in the next decades will be the ones that learn how to integrate the concepts of standardization and individualism.

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