Do we know what it takes? Another failed World Cup Qualifying Campaign!!
We say this over and over again after each failed World Cup qualification whether its the full Men's team or at the youth level, are we good enough? We haven't qualified at the U17 level on the men's side since 2013. We either have not qualified or have done poorly at the tournament.
So what are the problems? Most will say this is a loaded question and we all know the many factors that hinder player development in Canada. Some will say it's politics, some player development, player selection etc are some of the reasons we talk about. But do we actually know how to truly develop players for the world stage? Do we have the right environment for these players? Should we even get disappointed because we probably shouldn't qualify for any tournament any time soon? We all have our ideas and thoughts but perhaps we need to think what the goal is for the sport we love, what the goal of each club is, the goal of each coach, the goal of each player, and what a parent wants out of the sport for their children. Most of the time all these goals amongst all these people/group don't align which results in creating the lowest common denominator of "having fun". Don't get me wrong having fun is important but it should be a by-product of the common goal of developing players the best way we can and to their maximum potential.
How do we do this is? Seems like the million dollar question in Canada. There are no secrets out there really, there is a plenty of literature to read up on but do we have that environment to develop players? Do the players create that environment on their own to get better? There is also the debate within youth football of not keeping scores or standings and many people saying that kids need to know how to win and lose. That they are losing that competitive edge. Now add the environment of "having fun" as primary goal #1, you have a recreation mentality trying to develop players to compete on an international stage. We are 1 of a handful of countries who have decided to take sport and create two streams, recreational and development/competitive. Why have we done this? To get more involved in the game, have fun and a good time? Did we do this because it is truly what is best for the sport and its players? Have we done this to fill a void of "pick up" sports and created a "revenue stream". Clubs turned businesses saw a business opportunity and were able to fill a void? Whatever the answers are we are failing miserably in developing players on the men's side.
As I mentioned earlier we haven't qualified since 2013 and also qualified in 2011. Funny enough the majority of those players were part of local clubs, community clubs and provincial programs. Now we have professional academies in Canada informally in charge of most of the development of the future national team players. They have created an Men's Excel Program which is steering players to the professional academies in Canada to be developed by their coaches in their environments. If we have success with this than we have no problems, if we don't qualify for World Cups, then we start asking questions like this last failed qualifying campaign. It was composed of mainly MLS academy players and a heavy influence of Toronto FC Academy players. I don't know who played and what club they were from but I am just making an observation. So why did we have another miserable campaign when most players are in a "professional" environment? Are players given too much too early? Once you get to TFC, are there no regular meaningful games to test themselves and to improve. Are they not hungry enough because they are at the top. Are parents making them soft praising them all the time or is it a generally politically correct country and we have gone away with the "good ole days" of hard battling and have become "soft"?
I have been in Spain for almost 3 years, and to be more specific in the province of Barcelona in Catalonia. We moved here for many reasons including lifestyle, work, change of scenery, experience a new culture, have my 4 son's experience something different, learn a couple new languages(Catalan and Spanish) and dabble in some futbol.
This is their 3rd season this year and its coming to an end with a couple games left. The environment they are in is not the fun and games mentality. Every day, every game, every session, every tackle is a fight, and many times it results in fights literally. Youth fútbol in Catalonia is not just possession fútbol. It is tough, with tough challenges, cautions, sending offs etc. I remember my very first game I watched of my 3rd son. It was U11 and there were 11 cautions in the game, should have been 3 more sending offs and some cautions probably should have been a straight sending off. There is no parent interference at sessions or after sessions(perhaps behind closed doors). All 4 of my boys have been in fights at training, punches thrown, session continues and normally someone breaks it up quickly and back to training. If its not them it will be a new pair squaring off the next day. The next day is a new day, you work hard, you want to get better for yourself, you want to impress the coach so he selects you on the weekend and finally the dream to play professionally one day. As I said this in a previous blog, the actual playing season is 8 months and a 30 game season plus many friendlies before the season. There is promotion/relegation from around U8. Normally there is 1-1.5 month preseason and a post season of 3-4 weeks where they may play in a few tournaments, train and evaluate new players. Then they are completely off for 6-7 weeks to rest and relax. Comparing a season to what I knew of my time back in Canada to here is world's apart.
Back in Ontario a season was 14 games played from the end of May to early September You had preseason from October to May and some may have played in an indoor league during the winter. Some trained in gyms and others paid to be on turf during the winter but often time was split between different sports and activities. Now you have OPDL(Ontario Player Development League) with an expanded season but most other leagues are still only around 14-16 games. We have OPDL clubs developing kids and then the professional club academies around Canada. We also have a high performance league in BC as well as Quebec. Perhaps if you add all these clubs up we may have 60 teams across developing players at these standards. When you look at Catalonia alone there are probably more than a 1000 teams/age group operating at these standards or above with the mentality of each moment is a fight. This is bred from an early age, from the playground, to school and finally at futbol. They are not soft and every kid is ready to battle. This blog is not about a curriculum, how we develop players or anything like that, it's about the mentality and the "ready to kill" at any moment. As a whole during my time in Canada I didn't see this. There were definitely moments like this but I don't think it was normally like this. I coached a team for 4 years and we won most of our games, we trained hard but we hardly every played any meaningful games that we were challenged regularly. Not great if you want to always improve, have players be challenged and get out of their comfort zone. Coupled with parents complaining that some kids are "dirty" or not playing "fair", a recreation mentality has created a general soft environment and a weak mentality of players. This doesn't even touch upon the coaching these kids get, their technical or tactical ability or anything else. This is only talking about the psychological side of the game. Do we prepare our kids to compete and do they self prepare to compete? We talk about the 4 pillars of football, how do we develop the mental/psychological side of the game. We always speak heavily on the technical/tactical part, a bit less maybe on the physical part but what are we doing to work on the mental part of the game. Are we mentally strong or weak? How does a Cuba beat our U17s at the World Cup qualifying tournament? Was it tactics? Perhaps it was or perhaps the Cubans just are mentally stronger, stick to their plan and execute it perfectly. It was not the first time we lost to Cuba, nor will it be the last time.
We continue to ask questions and perhaps things will change one day but for the mean time it is status quo. We have a new man in charge of the men's side in Octavio Zambrano and perhaps we will have different results and a different mentality under Zambrano but time will tell and time is what he will need to see if things will change and filter down. I will continue to watch from afar and now we have added the new Canadian Premier League for children to dream and create that mentality internally needed for themselves to get to the top level and to dream to get to that level. As I always say(not everyday though lol), there is always hope!!