So another major tournament finishes, and once again England have not won it.  And once again we listen to the mad investigation into why England have not won it and what they need to do to win it next time.

Newspaper columns, radio phone-ins, TV commentators and pundits are all full of helpful suggestions like: “We need to go back to basics”. Usually they roll out an ex-player (and therefore expert on child development?) to tell us that we need an “overhaul”. Everyone nods in agreement, but no-one really seems to know what this means. It doesn’t matter though cos a week later and it’s all forgotten about.

One of the most persistent suggestions that (until the Italian semi-final victory) seemed to be finding favour across radio and TV punditry in particular was to “copy what the Germans done.” These are probably the same folk who wanted to copy the French in 1998 or the Spanish in 2010. Or roll back the years and copy the English from 1966.

For those that don’t know yet, the German FA (or DFB as they call it over there) organised a new structure for youth development in 2006. They have set-up a structure for youth football across Germany that encompasses amateur clubs, schools, professional club academies and local and regional skill development centres. Journeys and pathways for boys and girls through these pathways are all under the control of the DFB. The talent identification, philosophy, quality of coaching and environment are all delivered, controlled, and assessed consistently by the DFB with the same aim: To produce more and better players for German football.

Here are a few of the key aspects in the German development model:

  • Professional club academies don’t take children until under-12, not under-9 as we do in England. This gives the children three extra years to develop skills without being under pressure to perform in club environments. It also helps clubs get their selections correct as it is easier to predict the future potential of a 12 year old than a 9 year old.
  • Extended talent identification to include more children, to widen the base of the pyramid. In Germany this focussed on widening the geographical areas to include isolated regions. They did this by setting up hundreds of local DFB-run centres. In England we don’t have so many problems with geographical isolation, but we certainly aren’t inclusive in our talent ID and development either. English professional footballers typically come from a certain type of family. Although this is changing, there are many children and families who may be interested and show talent in football but are isolated by the culture they find in the clubs or centres nearby.
  • Boys and girls both identified by the same system, and developed within the same system. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are trained together. It just means that there are the same high expectations of young, talented girls as there are with boys. And to match these high expectations, the same pathways, governance and opportunities are provided. To think that girls need a different watered-down system, with fewer hours, less commitment, and lower expectations is a disgrace. The German women’s team shows what can be achieved when girls are treated equally.
  • Mixed age-groups to allow for late-developers to bloom. In Germany, under-12s and under-13s train together for example. This acknowledges that age on its own is not an indicator of learning needs… although personally I would widen the age-ranges to three year bands. 
  • Small-sided games. In Germany under-9s play 4-aside football. More touches, more involvement etc, I think anyone who’s been involved in football for a while knows the argument for smaller-sided children’s football. And yet, the recent FA changes to youth football in England have under-9s playing 7-aside. For me, there is still a world of difference between 4v4 and 7v7. And it will show in the type of player that is produced by the two systems.
  • No single entity can own more than 49% of a German professional club. This restricts foreign ownership, and means that ownership of clubs is more likely to be local. In general, local owners will have more interest in the development of local talent. Arguably this has helped in the development and retention of young German players.

In ten years, the percentage of players in the Bundesliga under the age of 21 has doubled. Their age-group national men’s teams have been finalists in five UEFA European Championships since 2008. The Women’s team have won two of the last three World Cups, and Germany are the reigning women’s World Champions at under-20 level.

So, can’t we just copy what they did? In a word, no. The governance of football in this country is vastly different to that in Germany. Whereas the DFB have the power and control to govern over all football in the country, in England we have no-one who has that authority.

Instead, we have three football governing bodies – the FA, the Football League and the Premier League. They all have their own responsibilities and their own interests in youth development. There is no consistent journey for our young footballers through the systems that these bodies organise, and no agreed aim for youth development between them. In 2008 a Professional Game Youth Development Group was set-up between the three bodies – but it lasted less than a year before is disbanded because of in-fighting and disagreement.

In May 2012, the FA voted to change some aspects of youth football. Some of these changes are – in my opinion – excellent, and will certainly improve the experience of football for children and their development within the game. For example, flexible competition and having mini-seasons (instead of one long 8-month season) will take pressure off weekly competitive games and allow better development through play in less-pressured environments.

But the FA Youth Development Review only extends to grassroots football. The moment a child gets selected at the tender age of nine for a professional club academy, they move beyond the control of these changes. In Germany, the DFB force professional club academies in Germany to include twelve players in each age-group that are eligible to play for Germany. If they don’t comply with this, then the club are not able to play in the Bundesliga. The English FA do not have that power, and the Premier League has no interest in enforcing such a rule.

For a German system to work here, the Premier League, the Football League and the FA would have to work together to agree on what they were trying to achieve and how they would achieve it. (There has been some co-operation between the three of them in setting up the Elite Player Performance Plan – but critics say that the real motivation as far as the Premier League goes it to help Premier League clubs pass new UEFA home-grown rules – and get richer of course).

To show just how far we are from the kind of co-operation we need between our three governing bodies, here is how the Premier League described the role of the FA in their recent submission to the ‘All Party Parliamentary Football Group’s Inquiry into English Football and its Governance’:

“The FA is the overall governing body for the sport of football in England. It is affiliated to FIFA and is entrusted with custody of the Laws of the game in England and with either conducting or supervising disciplinary proceedings at all levels of the game from the Premier League to the grass roots. It exists to enforce its Rules.”

No mention of youth development at all. Just enforce the rules. That's certainly not how the FA see themselves, I'm sure!

Revolution not Evolution

But wait, all is not lost! For there is a bright spark on the horizon that may offer some hope. Futsal is small-sided football, as developed in Brazil and now exported across the world. It is played indoors, with a ball invented for skill development. It is one of the largest growing sports in the country, and is becoming more accessible as more centres and programmes open.

What impresses me most about Futsal is that it comes complete with its own culture. (A bit like those little yoghurts in the telly adverts). I have often thought that the route cause of our football limitations as a country result from the mad environments that we create for our children to play in. And whether that be 4v4 or 7v7 or 11v11, if we surround the kids with crazed adults, we aren’t going to develop calm, skilled footballers who can keep the ball. I am quite certain that the football culture in England – the one that treats the game like it’s a war – will not shift any time soon. And any amount of youth reviews and changes (even copying the Germans!) would only make a partial difference. I am unconvinced that small evolutionary changes to kids’ football will make a drastic difference to the outcome in terms of the quality and quantity of player we develop. I believe we need Revolution not Evolution.

Futsal could be our Revolution. It is different. It is not a sport of war. It was invented by swaying Brazilians and has a culture that is more about joy, expression and movement. It is a sport where it seems OK to show-off, and to try things with a ball which we haven’t tried before. If we can embrace Futsal and maintain its refreshing culture, we have an opportunity to develop children in the kind of environment where skills can be acquired naturally through play.

And Futsal presents another opportunity too. Because the sport is still in its relative infancy, there is no cash-loving Premier League to do battle with. It is a sport that could be completely governed by one body – the FA for example. One body could set-up and govern a comprehensive and cohesive Futsal development programme for England. They could promote and support Futsal in schools. They could train primary school teachers to use Futsal in the PE classes. They could hold multi-school Futsal festivals, and start new centres for play and talent ID. They could establish new locally-owned clubs, and train children in mixed-age groups according to what they need to learn and develop. They could fully embrace the culture of expression and skill that the sport presents. It could be our opportunity to “do a Germany”.

The National Youth Futsal Festival will be held in Birmingham this weekend. All the best to all the teams and children playing. I hope you convert a few spectators to your way of playing. Enjoy yourselves.

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  By Mark Carter, June 2012

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