In Part One I talked about the postmortem of the Philippines’ exit in the Suzuki Cup and how Philippine Football hit a ceiling years ago. Yes, playing Phil Younghusband in midfield left the Azkals without much bite up top. Yes, individual mistakes played a part. And yes, the marketing campaign was as absent as Manny Pacquiao. But it is impossible to break the ceiling without building a football infrastructure to feed the National Team. This is the real problem at hand…
Every postmortem is about reaching a diagnosis. Honest, genuine feedback drives success in every aspect of life, from business to school to NGO work. So let us honestly ask, is this a squad you would expect to win the Suzuki Cup?
Yes there were some odd decisions, but Coaches and Managers can only work with the pool of players they have. Focusing on those will blind us from the real fixes the entire football system needs. Players work very hard, some are among the best in ASEAN in their
position. But there is no depth. We’re supposed to have a grassroots pyramid, but right now it looks more like Nelson’s column. There have been fantastic improvements but we do not have a domestic game that supports the Azkals. So how do we get there?
Same Problems Year-In, Year-Out
The first thing is to acknowledge and fix the simple things. Every single year we complain about the same things. As writers we complain of 24 hours’ notice for press conferences. As players we complain about the lack of regular leagues at all levels. As coaches we complain National Youth Team Tryouts are scheduled just a few days in advance, then changed at the last minute, or held during school hours at a particular school. Everyone from National Youth Team Coaches to to the Community Coaches are trying so hard. They’re just being messed around.
If there were progress on these fronts, we wouldn’t complain so much. If the communication, organisation, and strategy improved, one result wouldn’t matter. We could be excited for the future because we would see a growing pool of quality players. But we don’t see that. Instead we see 17 losses out of 18 youth games in 2015, and similar results in 2016. And most importantly, we see no obvious successor to any of the ageing National Team players right now.
The exception that proves the rule is the U14 and U16 girls. They are are possibly the only Philippine Youth Teams with a positive record but a large contingent come from the USA and elsewhere (at the parents’ expense). That’s not to reopen the stupid half-half debate, it’s just to say Philippine grassroots cannot take credit for them. They are good players and deserve their spot, but we didn’t develop them.
Most Kids Can’t Play Right Now
Sure, more kids are playing football now compared to 6 years ago. We have thousands of children playing. But our competitors in Southeast Asia have millions. And that’s the difference; it’s simply too hard to play football here. If a 6 year old wants to play how would they do it? Beginners will join a team and if you’re not in a private school shelling out on tuition fees you have to join a UFL Academy or similar set-up paying roughly P500 per session. Many UFL Academies open slots for kids from poorer backgrounds – but only if they’re already developed into a good player elsewhere of course.
The Philippines is stuck in a short-term mindset. We push the Azkals to win every game (including friendlies) because we hope it will generate fans and sponsors. We push Youth Teams to win trophies because we hope it attracts other kids to join our ‘successful’ team and pay for trainings. And even many community coaches push their kids to win and disrespect anyone who gets in the way, because that’s all they’ve been taught.
And that speaks to the larger problem: the Philippine grassroots system is built on winning at all costs. And in the long-run we lose…
In general the entire youth season is built one festival to the next. As the PFF’s respected U16 boys Coach, Marlon Maro, said during tryouts: that players lack basic football skills and show bad attitudes “…is probably the result of the ‘Festival Syndrome’”. The kids learn winning is all that matters. If you lose, you’re out. Go to any youth tournament and coaches (and parents) are screaming at tiny children. Look around the next one you’re at and ask, ‘are these children being valued as human beings before they’re valued as players?’ Here’s a great open letter from kids to over-bearing parents on that.
The result of this mentality? DEPED’s Palaro finals break out into brawls. Coaches are usually at fault for starting the fights too. Teams regularly field overage players and cheat in other ways (we all know who). And the kids get left behind. The playing pool shrivels into a puddle as kids drop out in droves because it’s not fun anymore. The young players are forced to play overage kids and get discouraged, and the over-aged kids’ development stalls too because playing younger kids all the time.
Festivals are good to showcase talent, but they don’t develop it. Leagues develop talent. Right now the largest running youth league in the country is run by a charity. It’s a really nice league and is great for development… but isn’t it sad charities have to fill these gaping chasms? The UFL Youth League was a good start, and the UFL overall was a great development in the domestic game. But the Youth League cost P20,000 to join and lost millions of pesos overall. That was before the PFF tried to put lipstick on a pig by decreeing only UFL Clubs could join, meaning less kids playing.
Talent Development: Talent is Created in the Local Community
So we have the diagnosis, what’s the treatment?
The key is a long-term mindset. A vision and a strategy. When facing a grassroots crisis, even the most developed football nations don’t restructure for the next two to four years. They focus on 6-8 year olds. I previously wrote how Germany’s 2014 World Cup win was 14 years in the making for example .
Because if players aren’t developing fundamental skills at this age there’s not much chance. Not physical skills, and certainly not results. None of that matters. Fundamental skills in terms of ball control and technique. Paul Scholes is the go-to example of this. An undersized asthmatic child, when Alex Ferguson first saw him play he said: “He’s got no chance – he’s a midget”. The rest is history.
So how do we get players with elite ball control, technique, and vision? Space to play. The late Johan Cruyff once said: “I trained 3-4 hours a week at Ajax when I was little but played 3-4 hours every day on the street. So where do you think I learnt football?” The best players in history typically learned from the streets; a small court or field to rack up their 10,000 hours of deep practice. A bit of guidance from quality coaches will help. But without the regular time playing as kids, it cannot be done.
In most barangays, however, no matter how engaged, interested, or excited a child is, there is absolutely nowhere to play. There is a single basketball court nearby but it’s dominated by older basketballers and there’s no safe space around the corner for kids to go. We’re missing Step 1 and so we trip ourselves up trying to hurdle it.
My favourite example of how little you need is Wallsend Boys Club, a five aside community team in the North East of England. As I wrote here this indoor 5 aside pitch produced England internationals Michael Carrick, Alan Thompson, Peter Beardsley, Fraser Forster, and Premier League all-time top scorer Alan Shearer, plus other Pros.
Most people associate Carrick with West Ham, and Alan Shearer and Fraser Forster with Southampton. But they didn’t join those Academies until they were at least 15 years old. They developed as elite players for their age with their community teams. So we cannot expect the National League to solve our grassroots problem. Teams like Global, Kaya, Loyola, and Ceres will scout the communities and invite the best players to join them. They will develop them, for sure, but they will not create the talents.
So this is the first step: talent is created in the local community.
A Crazy Idea
So here’s a crazy idea: forget about winning the 2018 Suzuki Cup. Forget the idea that the Azkals winning something will revive Philippine football. If the Philippines had won the Suzuki Cup this year almost all of those inspired kids would still have nowhere to play.
Instead here is my unsolicited advice if we truly want to break the ceiling of Philippine Football:
- A vision and a strategy for the youth beyond one-day festivals. Forget about winning (many successful grassroots programs do not record results for U8 and U10 games). Focus instead on ball control, coachability, and fun.
- Form cheap, affordable youth leagues such as the Metro Manila Futsal League and Liga GK using basketball courts in every region. These leagues also have special rules to promote development over winning. Youth competition doesn’t have to be on a field, it just has to be regular and fun.
- Build safe spaces to play in poor communities. One futsal court with 100 children playing regularly racks up more playing time than the one-day festival calendar. And in exchange they can host and run the leagues.
When communities have safe spaces to play, kids flock there. Young kids care more about actually playing than about watching others, even the Azkals. And when coaches focus on fundamentals and attitude more than winning, the talent is created.
Once that happens, we can talk about the Azkals one day winning the Suzuki Cup. We can talk about building a market for the National League. And we can talk about building a football culture.
But not before.
Roy Moore is a
Armchair Analyst Freelance Journalist. He is available for consultation at a hefty fee.