By John Haime, President, New Edge Performance
I am frustrated with Canadian soccer …
And it takes a lot for me to become frustrated. I work with athletes, I understand athletics and decision-making in sport – and I’ve seen my share of nonsense in sports.
After getting a first-hand glimpse into the Canadian soccer system and its politics the past few years, trust me, any sane man could be driven to the edge of insanity watching the calamity in the Canadian soccer landscape!
It has often been said to me by soccer people in Canada that Canadian Soccer is a political mess with little structure, no basic “Canadian” style of play and no urgency to fundamentally change the way things are done. I now see what they mean.
Let me explain …
I recently returned from a family trip to Barcelona, Spain where my son and others participated in a Spanish soccer academy to learn about the Spanish way and get exposure to a system that is producing world-class players and generating results.
While I had been curious why we do some things we do here since my son started in soccer in 2005, the wheels really started turning watching how the Spanish do it – and the results doing it their “way”.
It is crystal clear from rudimentary observation that there is soccer direction in Spain. There is a defined style of play and there is structure. The direction comes from above – the Spanish National Team. Watching the U5 kids train and having fun – and then jumping to the U10 kids – and then seeing the U14 kids – and jumping over to the Barcelona Second team – and finally to the world’s top team, the structure is obvious and it is consistent. There is a style of play where aware, fundamentally sound players use their ability to possess the ball and move it beautifully around the pitch. The game is fluid, the players possess fundamental skills, the ball moves faster than the players and the ball is advanced wide, deep and patiently to the goal. Fundamentally sound soccer and speed of thought rules – it really is the beautiful game whether watching 10 year old kids or watching the world’s greatest team.
Watching this for a week got me thinking about Canada and some of the things I have noticed about Canadian soccer standing around for hours watching kids train and play. I also think about sitting down in front of the TV last fall as one of the least developed countries in Latin America, the Republic of Honduras, schooled Canada 8-1 in a World Cup qualifying match.
From all of this observation I have concluded that Canadians haven’t figured out four basic ideas that some Europeans and other countries, that are having success, seem to know …
- If you have the ball and keep possession of it, meaning the other team doesn’t have it, you have a better chance of scoring and succeeding in the game.
- The ball moves faster than any player can run so why do all Canadian games look like track meets where our biggest, strongest athletes are furiously running up and down the pitch chasing the ball.
- The ball in soccer is on the ground so there is not primary need for physically imposing players who are further from the ground – and the ball – than average sized players.
- Fundamental skills are the critical foundation in soccer – without them a player really has no future in the game. It is not about the biggest, strongest, fastest but fundamentals and speed of thought.
Bigger, Faster, Stronger Isn’t Working
One of North American soccer’s primary blind spots has become very clear to me watching the highest level U13 groups in Canada who are big, strong athletic looking kids but have the fundamental skills of U8 groups I just observed in Spain.
In watching the evaluation and tryout process at the U13 level the past number of months, I have observed a number of top U13 teams train and play. Observing the training sessions and games, it is distressing to see how very few of the kids have the fundamental skills that should be required of a U13 “elite” player. A small number of these advanced U13 players can accurately pass the ball, receive the ball, use all parts of the foot to manipulate the ball, turn with the ball, execute a simple stepover under pressure, control a ball from the air or other fundamentals needed to having a hope of playing at the highest levels.
I have recently seen a number of great examples of fundamentally sound, motivated soccer players who do not meet the physicality standards imposed by clubs and coaches and the coaches declaring that “that’s just the way it is in order for us to win games at this age”.
Yes, that’s exactly the way it is in soccer in Canada and that’s a big reason Canada isn’t making a dent on the world soccer scene. Kids who don’t match up athletically, who love the game, have developed the fundamentals to move forward and are motivated to further develop their skills, are denied opportunities and develop self-doubt actually believing that “experts” like these coaches may be right.
Most of the top influencers in the world of soccer are not herculean. In fact, arguably, the two greatest soccer players of all time, Brazil’s Pele and Argentina’s Maradona were 5’ 7” or below and relatively small in stature. And, the greats today are not physically imposing either. I could rest my case with the world’s greatest player – Lionel Messi – but there are so many others who dominate the game and shape how it is played: Xavi, Iniesta, Pirlo, Neymar, Falcao, Phillip Lahm, Wayne Rooney and the list goes on. Canada’s best soccer player the past 25 years, Dwayne Derosario, is an average sized man and was cut from his U12 team because the Coach told him he was undersized and couldn’t compete. Just think if Derosario had allowed a Coach to discourage him at age 12, we would not be watching Canada’s best soccer player win MVP awards in Major League Soccer.
It is certainly more of an exception that a physical giant, seemingly coveted in North America as the type of player that is required to win at young ages in soccer circles, has significant influence on the game at the highest levels.
England, the father of the modern game of soccer, has promoted this Hercules mentality in its academies as a prerequisite to play in the rough and tumble English Premier League. The English have been dismally unsuccessful on the world scene last winning the World Cup of Soccer 57 years ago in 1966. In the 2012 FIFA Player of the Year Award, there was not one player out of the 23 nominees chosen from England. There were 7 from skills-based Spain.
A great question then is why are clubs, coaches and others in the game in North America, at critical development ages, discouraging talented, fundamentally sound, average-sized players in favour of overgrown freaks of nature who have the physical attributes of Hercules, but lack the basic fundamentals and mental capabilities to play the game?
I am curious why the regulatory bodies and soccer “experts” haven’t put this question at the forefront.
Where are the standards, created by these regulatory bodies, to ensure all kids who want to improve in the game, no matter what size and shape, have the fundamentals necessary to do so?
Where are the Technical Directors that should be encouraging standards for fundamental baselines of technical skill level at each of the age groups in their clubs?
Where are the parents who watch year to year and accept that their son/daughter does not have basic skills to advance in the sport?
Why are we not making sure the kids can execute the basics before they move forward? Where is the standardized grading system, like we have in schools, to avoid a grade 5 level soccer player jumping directly into high school soccer?
Why are we discarding the kids who have the skills but are being overlooked in favour of the kids who meet the bigger, stronger, faster benchmark?
It seems we are not dealing with the issue of selecting players based on physical and athletic ability – and the ability of those players to meet any kind of a reasonable fundamental standard. This is a major problem in our country and could be one of the main reasons Canada lurks in the soccer backwater and is not a player on the world soccer radar.
Soccer in Canada has adopted, and implemented, the LTPD (Long-term Player Development) model of development. LTPD is a general structure of development for kids in the game of soccer. It is a general guideline for soccer that is needed to define the stages of development. It is a good outline of what an athlete should be able to do at each level, but the measurement of basic, fundamental skills and the standards at each level is not included in this model. The model is a nice overall structure, but it lacks in accountability and establishing standards for mastery of the fundamentals in a game like soccer. This is why we see many kids at the U13 level in Canada with fundamental skills of a U8 player in Spain.
The system in Canada is far too random. We hope that some fundamental skill will stick at a young age in a very unorganized developmental system. We then promote the “athletes” who can dominate through athleticism at young ages, but then disappear later when size and strength equalizes and technical ability and speed of thought are the important attributes in success.
Is Canada not looking at the most effective players in the world of soccer, and in the history of the game, and catching on that soccer is a game of skill and speed of thought and not a game of bigger, faster, stronger?
The best soccer team in the world – and perhaps of all time, FC Barcelona, is also one of the least physically imposing teams in the world. Are Canadian soccer decision-makers not watching this team and seeing their result? Is this not evidence enough that bigger, faster, stronger is not required for success in the game? Why does Canada continue to be seduced by athletes we believe can dominate sports with physicality?
We have one of the richest countries in the world and soccer is the largest participation sport in the country. No, soccer is not embedded in our culture like some countries – but we have a large section of the population that covet the game and are passionate about it. We need structure in Canada. We need all the decision-makers to put the egos away and get together for the good of the game. We need standards to ensure that all those that have visions of playing high level soccer have impeccable fundamentals so they have an opportunity to be successful at the highest levels. And finally we need a style of play in Canada that provides a platform for fundamentally sound Canadian players to excel. We know what the Spanish style is. We know what the German style is. We know what the Dutch is. We know what the Italian style is. We know what the Brazilian style is. All of these styles are easily definable.
It’s time to define what the Canadian style is and insist that fundamentals and technical ability, and not the bigger, faster, stronger mentality are backbone that will sustain the Canadian style of soccer.