The spirit of football is many things to many different people; to some it is respect. Fans from all clubs uniting to pay tribute to the 96 killed in the Hillsborough disaster, or the acknowledgement of talent regardless of fan loyalties, the standing ovation Ronaldo received from the Manchester United fans following a masterful hat-trick at Old Trafford for Real Madrid in 2003.
To others it is fairness; larger than life Paulo Di Canio catching the ball rather than electing to shoot against Everton in 2001, so that injured Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard could receive treatment.
To others it is joy; one of the greatest spectacles in the modern footballing era were the performances of Ronaldinho for Barcelona during 2005 and 2006. This was a man who radiated his love for football to every seat in the Nou Camp whenever he graced the pitch, as his majestic, inventive and artistic performances were delivered with a perpetual smile.
At the Barclays’ Football Writers Association Live event in Liverpool on Thursday evening, it was this very spirit that Ronaldinho epitomised during his time at Barcelona that according Everton under 21 coach Alan Stubbs, is lacking in so many young English players in football nowadays.
When speaking about Everton’s latest teen talent Ross Barkley, Stubbs said that Barkley plays because: ‘he loves football.’ But Stubbs also went on to say that Barkley was the first player to excavate such a spirit ‘since Wayne Rooney.’
Such an insight is alarming given FA Chairman Gregg Dyke’s recently-set target of England winning the Word Cup in 2022 and a panel including England’s fifth all-time leading scorer Michael Owen, throughout the evening discussed the England national team’s current lack of identity.
Indeed, when an impromptu audience vote was taken only around half the congregation claimed to care if England did not qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
Owen cited the England team as a boyhood inspiration for his career and although he admitted Gary Lineker was his particular hero he said: “I loved every member of the England team.” If the night’s audience poll was anything to go by, Owen’s affection towards the England team is not reciprocated by fans nowadays.
Surely the England team should evoke and exemplify the spirit of football within the country? So why to quote former England Under-21 coach Stuart Pearce the ‘apathy?’ What can be done to make the England team not only successful, but a shining beacon of the spirit of football?
The spirit of football in England is often personified on the pitch by traits such as aggression, physicality and determination. Compare that with the on-field traits that personify the spirit of the most successful national team in history, Brazil: expression, creativity and flair. Or current World Champions Spain: technique and tactical awareness. The words ‘chalk’ and ‘cheese’ spring to mind.
There is nothing wrong with aggression, physicality and determination, they some are the traits that make the English Premier League so popular. But can these traits and this traditional spirit of English football be married with the traits that represent England’s international superiors?
Of course it can, but it will be a gradual osmosis. But a fundamental step is a mentality shift at grass-roots football.
Like most young, English would-be footballers I played Sunday league from the age of eight until sixteen. Nearly every weekend junior coaches either mine or the opposition team would bawl out one thing: “Don’t try anything fancy!”
Why? Was Central Lancashire Junior Football League success so important that managers’ were forced to adopt a conservative, no- risk approach? When you’re a child you think: they’re my manager, so they must be right.’ When you’re older, you realise the folly of the statement.
Every junior football game played in England should have one purpose: player development. Although everyone wants to win, at such a young age it is not essential and junior football coaches rather than using their Sunday league team as ego massage therapy should recognise this, and encourage kids to express themselves on the pitch.
The mentality of junior football coaches in England is not only thing requiring change; the surroundings also require a re-vamp. From eight years onwards, youngsters are thrust on to over-sized pitches and are dwarfed by towering nets, in such an environment quick-fix victory tactics include: shooting from anywhere in the hope the pigmy-esque opposition goalkeeper will not be able to reach the ball; or punting a long ball up the pitch into an area for the strikers to chase.
Not exactly a breeding ground for technical excellence. Oliver Ashe chairman of non-league Maidstone United indirectly addressed this problem in his open letter to the Gregg Dyke earlier this week. Speaking of the benefits his club and his community has seen from investing in 3G pitches, Ashe described them as surfaces on which ‘skilful players thrive’ and ‘old-school’ players, who ‘thrive on the mud’ are ‘quickly found out.’
A futsal-type format in junior football, something that has honed the talents of many a young Brazilian over the years, at least until a player reaches their teens, coupled with changes to surfaces and the sentiments of junior coaches would certainly yield an uptake in skilful players.
Skill brings joy to players and fans, encompassing the aforementioned spirit of football. If changes are made at grass roots level, maybe one day the spirit of English football will be personified by a devotion and not diversion from skill.
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