Futbol Culture-The need for structure and rituals
Many people in Canada speak about the lack of culture in the game. What does culture mean? Everybody may have a different definition but I view it as being immersed in the game in all facets and I have related this a lot to youth players. I feel many youth who do play the game bring their ball to training and that ball goes back into the backpack until the next session. Kids are dropped off 5 minutes before training and are picked up right after its done. Many also show up 10 minutes before their match and the same after often rushing to get to their next event or activity or just to get home. We have all grown accustomed from going from one thing to the other and often don't have much time to take a breath and enjoy things. Of course there are teams/clubs that differ than the picture I painted above and slowly things are changing but we really need to improve things.
Many community clubs are trying to make that connection for their players, parents and coaches, but what are they missing? Many clubs have great facilities, many teams and many players. Some clubs are the only club in town. Being in Catalonia, Spain for the last 3 months has shown me a lot of different things. This is a given but futbol is #1 in Catalonia and Spain for that matter. We can equate this to hockey in Canada.
For the most part you can strike up a conversation with anyone about the #1 sport in their respective country and you may agree or disagree but there is a conversation taking place. Now if you look at soccer in Canada, as you know this is hit and miss. Most Canadians have the World Cup as a starting point and it may end there even if their child plays youth soccer. So there is a large percentage of parents that are new to the game and were introduced to it from their kids playing. These parents may not necessarily love the sport but its good exercise and the kids love it plus its nice to be out in the summer. So what are we missing? I grew up with the sport in Canada mainly because my father had played in Greece and he introduced me to the sport in Canada as a young boy. Back when I first started playing in Hamilton, Canada, we had clubs which are not what we think of community clubs today. Most of the clubs represented their ethnic community. I played for Hamilton Hellas, there was St Anthony, Hamilton Croatia National, Croatia Holy Cross, St Nicholas Serbians, Hamilton Serbians, Alemania, Vasco da Gama, Hispanics and many more that I can't remember at this point. If any readers know of the other clubs in the area please let me know. Many of these clubs continue to this day as youth clubs or for the most part as over 35 teams.
I remember my dad telling me about when he played in Greece for a small club in Northern Greece, Florina. Back in the 60s and for many years they played on a dirt field which I most commonly refer to as a clay field as there is no give to them but in most cases these fields, which many today are mini stadiums are the hub of the towns or cities. I also remember my dad telling me that they used to have "neighbourhood" matches. This would be their little neighbourhood against another neighbourhood. I remember doing this as a kid with street hockey. I remember walking with my friends with our sticks to play against some kids from another neighbourhood. I remember us all playing so hard to win, with no trophy at the end, no parents watching us, and really it was for bragging rights. We won some, we lost some but we had a lot of fun, we had some heated arguments, punches thrown at times but common sense always prevailed. These neighbourhood games never carried over to soccer though. We were supposed to have a tournament in our little town of Gurb, Spain which was going to be the various neighbourhoods against each other. It was open to all residents of each of their neighbourhoods, from children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, basically anyone who wanted to play. Unfortunately it was postponed due to the torrential downpour we had he for 4 days straight and probably 150 mm or rain. These were posted all over the town and many were very excited. Apparently our neighbourhood has not been successful in the past and they were looking to change that this year. Hopefully it gets rescheduled soon.
In the last 3 months I have visited many cities/towns in Catalonia where their stadiums have all been the hub of the city and many facilities also have tennis, basketball near by. All have snack bars/bars/restaurants and I have seen the beer flowing with sandwiches for breakfast at 930am on the weekends for match days(of course they have coffee too :). Most of these stadiums are used all week for training of all ages from their 5 year olds to their first team. But one of the most important parts of these facilities are not how new they are or how many fields there are but the dressing room. Many of our fields in Ontario are in local neighbourhoods and the pitch is the only thing there and many facilities that have dressing rooms are not really used. I am not a youth hockey expert at all but why do youth hockey players need to be there 1 hour before a game in their gear that they are supposed to wear? This is expected by their coach and is part of the game. They are in their dressing rooms as players and the parents are usually not allowed in. Without dressing rooms players show up to matches usually dressed in their match wear and some even have their shin guards on and even their boots that I have seen. Would you wear your skates to the rink? I have often asked players and parents this question. Sometimes I feel that they don't respect the sport enough and some clubs have allowed this but for the most part it's just that they don't know any better.
I strongly believe that clubs and coaches need to help build this culture up. These are some simple things that really do not cost any money but I think can help the game in Canada. For instance here in Catalonia, players show up to the training ground sometimes 30 mins early just to sit in the dressing room with their teammates to talk about anything and everything. They train for 90 mins and then back to the dressing rooms to joke a bit, shower and go home. We do many things to try to create team bonding like weekends away, team events etc. These are all great things and usually have a cost associated with this. If the players come 30 mins early for training and 60 mins before a game, then that's an extra 2-2.5 hours/week where teammates are together off the pitch socializing and having fun. We all know if the group is happy you have better results in training sessions and games and the players become closer. Team chemistry is an important dynamic to sport and I believe this can help.
Team/club identity, what does this mean? Does this go deeper than just team uniforms? Are you representing your community through your team sport? Do you feel connected to your city when playing for your club? Has your club made you feel connected with your club? These are all questions that we can ask and I am sure we can get different responses. Most clubs here in Spain have their centralized venue for training and games. This makes your sense of belonging to the club much easier. Training sessions run at the club here from 545 to 1030 each night, from the 5 year olds to the first team. Coaches see each other each day, kids mingle with players from different ages and they are all under one roof, or one club. Many of our clubs in Canada don't have winter facilities and just rent time where they can get it. In the summer their pitches are all over the place so you don't have regular interaction with players and coaches of different teams. This becomes difficult when things are not centralized but I do see many clubs with centralized facilities and this improves the players sense of affiliation with their club.
Another thing that I hear a lot is that we don't have enough pitches. How is it possible that many clubs in Spain have 1-2 pitches for the club and can make do and we are unable to do so? One difference is that clubs here do not offer our typical recreational program that we do in Canada but our whole structure is primarily made up of trying to fit soccer into Monday to Friday so the weekends are off, especially in the summer months. The Ontario Player Development League(OPDL) which began in 2014 runs their matches on Saturdays as well as the Peel-Halton Development League and there are others. Typically though, we try to fit training, matches and recreational leagues from Monday to Friday. This summer I had some coaches from Barcelona in Canada and we went for a drive to view where the camp was going to be held. It was a Saturday and in the 15 minutes that our drive took we counted 19 11v11 grass pitches and 6 mini fields. The coaches asked me, I thought they played futbol in the summer in Canada? All 25 pitches were completely vacant. One had some kids playing with their dog and another had a father and son flying their kite. That was it!! The coaches said where are all the kids? If we had this many fields they would be filled with kids playing. I explained our system and they said how strange it was to play mid week and on different days sometimes. They asked how do you plan your week properly? You should train during the week and the matches held on the weekend. I had said that my son trained Sunday morning, then played on Tuesday, trained on Wednesday and then Friday. Their eyebrows were raised in disbelief and then he said, this is Canada, I guess!
For the most part I like to call most players in Canada, casual players. What this means is that they play the game 1-2 times /week and that is it. Usually the ball is not touched other than at training or games but in order for the game to progress we need to build a structure for the game. I think playing games on the weekend although many parents do not like this must happen and as I mentioned is happening in some places. It is important to have the natural build up through the week and concluding with the match. This is how the pros do it, so why not model and prepare the players for this. These weekend games will result in some to quit the game or go to recreational but it will help in the long run in creating a structure. If clubs host their games on Saturday and Sunday then they should have a club centralized venue and run the matches with the youngest in the morning to the oldest at the end. Each club could have half the teams at home and half the teams away. This would alternate each week and would add some structure again, home game then away game etc.. Clubs could have some vendors or operate a BBQ, soft drinks each weekend for some extra money but more importantly create that festival atmosphere at their club. You would have that crossover of teams and coaches and many parents would watch some other teams other than their own kids as they would be there an hour before.
What happens on your game day? I suggested creating a club event for game day but we need to add some professionalism to the match. Why is it that most clubs that I have seen come to the pitch, already dressed, warm-up and then go straight to the match? My suggestion although much easier when dressing rooms are available, is to come to the match in a club polo or t-shirt. We can represent our club and look "professional" prior to the match. They do this in youth hockey where players go to the arena in their team gear or even a shirt and tie at 8 years old. I have never seen a competitive hockey player show up in their uniform already to go with their skates on running from the parking lot 1 min before a game. This has to change in soccer and wearing your boots home is a no-no. My first year as a coach I had purchased all the players a boot bag. Coming to training with their boots on and leaving with their boots on was unacceptable to me. I explained to them about taking care of their boots and they needed to use their boot bag. I ended my pet peeve and annoyance quickly and added a bit of respect to the game for them. Many of them explained to their parents as well and a few said to me I had no idea that you shouldn't wear your boots off the field. So you arrive to the pitch in style not wearing your boots of course, meet your teammates one hour before the game. Now get changed into match gear except your jersey. Maybe a T-shirt for pre game warm up whether that's at a pitch or some open space and go through your warm up ritual with your team. This is the norm here in Spain. Everything is done like the pros and makes a connection to the pro game.
Once warm up is complete, the referee calls them in. The players go back to the dressing rooms where their jersey is usually laid out for the match. Players come out of the dressing room where the referee checks the player's card, matches the jersey number to the game sheet. Once these formalities are complete, the players line up to walk on the pitch led by the referee. This is all typical in Spain. Next step, the players walk onto the pitch following the game rituals like the pros. My two youngest were in a tournament final a few weeks ago and minus the music, this is what happens for every game.
How can you not get focused for the game walking out onto the pitch? Having all this structure leading up to the beginning of a match prepares the player mentally for a match. This is another story but in general most Canadian players are not prepared to start the match and are not prepared to play a full match. Can these small things help our players get ready for these games? I believe they can and as I said it will add some professionalism to the game which it lacks at this point. Perhaps we can begin this with the OPDL for the upcoming season and the CSA and The Ontario Soccer Association can filter it through all the various leagues in our province. We can do many things with money to improve the game but there are definitely things we can do that doesn't cost a lot money. We need to professionalize our game and build the respect for it as well. We need to start creating some culture around our game. It is time to take our game seriously and move it to the next level! It is no longer a sport that you play in the off season but a sport taken seriously by many.