As the proverb says: the proof of the pudding is in the eating. You judge a plan by its results. The Belgium team at the World Cup are the result of a plan1 that came from the ashes of their elimination at the group stage in 1998. It started with a decision to produce technically skilled football players and over the years a structure was put in place to make that happen.
A university study provided the evidence that pointed to a new approach. It filmed 1,500 youth matches and showed that some young children were touching the ball twice in half an hour — not a practice that was likely to improve their skills. The study found that too much emphasis was put on winning and not enough on developing skills such as dribbling and diagonal passing. It has taken time for the effects of the new training philosophy to have an effect on the Belgium national team but they have a strong team going to Brazil this year. They are 11th in Fifa world rankings2, just behind England, but fifth favourites in the betting odds3.
England has also had plans for improving our national team. One of the stated aims for the formation of the Premier League was to improve the success of the England team. So far that hasn’t happened. England reached the semi final of the World Cup in 1990, the last World Cup before the formation of the Premier League; it has not done that well since then. One problem that’s often mentioned is the high proportion of foreign players in Premier League teams, which means that fewer English players have the chance to play at the top level in their own country. I’m afraid I agree with a more cynical view of the plan behind the formation of the Premier League, the plan that did succeed, to make a lot of money for the some of the men who made the decision.
The Football Association’s latest recommendations for improving English football4 were published last month. These included “the creation of a new League Three in the Football League and that all Premier League clubs would have the choice of having a B team starting either in that division or the Conference.” A lot of football fans thought this might help Premier League clubs but was not a good idea for the lower tiers and started the Against League 35 campaign. Supporters Direct, in its submission6 to the FA Commission said English football’s problems arose “because the coaching and infrastructure is not right. This can only be changed with a strategic game-wide approach”. To me that sounds something like the Belgium approach.
This approach doesn’t bring instant success. Michel Sablon, the technical director of the Belgium football federation, had to contend with a lot of criticism when he paid more attention to the playing system than to results. He’d probably have been sacked if he had been working as a manager of an English Premier League or Football League club. I believe that the short term view is one of the major problems in the game; players and managers are not given the time they need to settle into a team or develop skills. I see this at the club I support, Birmingham City; some supporters are so quick to write off players that don’t have an immediate impact when they first arrive. I can remember some of the criticisms of Lee Novak when he failed to score early in the season but he finished as our top scorer with 11 goals. I know that some Blues fans would like the club to be bought by someone super rich who would put in loads of cash and get us back into the Premier League. I’d prefer an owner who cared about the long term future of the club. Stability now and success later would be fine with me.