learning from pros

There remains certain aspects of South African football where the effects of long international isolation during the apartheid era are still visible.

There remains certain aspects of South African football where the effects of long international isolation during the apartheid era are still visible.

Among the less canvassed areas is the lack of basic technical knowledge among the general public. On the technical side, for the past 40 to 50 years, competitive football has made progress and the global fan's comprehension about the technicality of the game has been improved.

Not so, for the South African football community which, for most of those years, was unable to witness and learn about the technical progress of modern football.

Examples of disputes and criticism over issues related to youth development, teams and coaching performances, styles of play, etc., mirror major concerns, but also indicate a shortage of knowledge, which the fans, the media and even football officials are missing.

They should not be surprised to hear that the answers to a majority of such issues currently disputed have already been provided.

For several decades more than 200 football nations have been searching for the best solutions to bring success in competitive football and some of those experiences have provided the answers.

With better understanding of how important the fans' technical education is, Safa, the PSL and the media should have disseminated necessary information over the past decade.

That may have gone towards eliminating the confusion and emotion reflected in so many people's "expert" reactions to the impediments of our football. There are indisputable principles that we would do well to respect and abide by.

How top players are developed

For all those who insist that there is "some youth development" in South African football, there is abundant international documentation to dispel that notion. All the studies done on the world's top players unanimously confirm the following facts:

l The complete cycle of a player's development for competitive football requires 10 to 13 years;

l There are five stages of systematic training and games - from 1,5 years to 3 years each - that are strictly interdependent in attaining optimal fulfillment of individual potential;

l The process of talent discovery starts before the age of five with a pre-development period;

l At the age of 11 to 12 learning and applying the fundamentals of ball technique is completed;

l At the age of 15 to 16 technical, tactical, physical and psychological development should enable the player to enter the stages of high performance;

l Competitive challenges are introduced in the form of exercise in training and small games, gradually elevated to high level competitions in the form of youth leagues, cups, national championships and international participation (Stages 4 and 5);

l The concept and methodology of training-coaching unconditionally reflects players' specific talent inclinations, physical and game mentality traits as well as the characteristics of local environment; and

l Identical development policy and procedures apply to all youth structures - clubs, academies, schools and community youth centres - on a national basis.

These factors have to be considered whenever players' developmental aspects are evaluated. The limited time young players spend in training with the PSL clubs' youth structures or academies is not "development", as is misleadingly presumed.

This minimal training can only satisfy minor objectives, such as the improvement of the general playing condition.

One of the best examples is the general thinking on dealing with the inability of players to score goals consistently from favourable positions.

Debates on the causes and solutions to solve this serious failure have been in the news for some time but the actual factors responsible for the problem have not been properly addressed.

Kick Off magazine and other publications carried several zealous articles targeting the poor scoring skills of local players. The blame was thrown on club coaches and professional players. Absolutely wrong! The conclusion of many that scoring goals would not be a problem if the players were to intensify "target shooting practice" at their clubs is misleading.

The fact that the majority of PSL players never went through the first three stages of their development - when the goalscoring ability is instilled - remains the main problem and cannot be ignored.

A model that amazes the world

In Brazil, the leading nation in the production of world-class footballers, the country's biggest club, Flamengo, have five classes in their education programme: Pre-Mirim (Under-11), Mirim (Under-13), Infantil (Under-15), Juvenil (Under-17) and Juniores (Under-20).

In addition, the club has 23 football academies in Rio de Janeiro, with another 27 across Brazil. Then there's a team of olheiros (eyes) who visit every pitch in the city's narrow suburbs. The club has daily contact with feeder clubs who frequently send their best players.

Those who believe that playful football on the beaches explains why Brazil has exported 3 087 professional players in the last four years might like to reconsider. In fact, the result of hard work and discipline cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

"I get upset by those who believe that players grow on trees here," says Tito Araujo, Flamengo's chief recruitment officer. "It is our consistent work with the children that makes it possible. Take any player in the national team. Everyone has started in a football academy... as 8-year-olds. They are professional even before they become teenagers." (Extract from FourFourTwo magazine, July 2007)

Bafana Bafana's Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira says: "In Brazil we have a mass production of players, and it further emphasises this point. I call it the factory. When a player is nine, a club is already evolving him. At 19 he has already had 10 years' organised football.

"That's why Brazil have so many good players, playing in the first division of Brazil aged 19. Edu, Arsenal's former midfielder, was enrolled with Corinthians at five.

"There are no street players in Brazil any more. Players are built in clubs. This is the strength of Brazilian football. It is not about Pele, Kaka, Ronaldinho - it is about the system that produces them." (Extract from interview in The Telegraph, November 27 2007)

There are examples from countries like Holland (who have produced high quality footballers well out of proportion to their small population), France (who set up a nationwide structure for long term youth development in 1966 that has seen them twice crowned European champions, as well as a World Cup win and a losing final appearance).

These countries have studied their characteristics and formulated a programme suited to their development. While we can learn from their concept, it would be foolish to import it in its entirety. It must be tailored to suit South African particularities.