A positive step towards grassroots reform?

In his role as Head of Elite Development at the FA, Gareth Southgate is set to propose a reform of grassroots football which would delay the age that youngsters play in 11-a-side matches until 13 years-old. Currently, children as young as ten or eleven are thrust in to pressurised competition without having been sufficiently trained in the technical aspects of their game, with the focus on strength, athleticism and winning at all costs, rather than player development.

What’s more surprising is that the FA has taken this long to consider encompassing changes to the fabric of youth development in this country, seeing as the national side has endured years of underachievement without a steady stream of young talent emerging behind them. For decades, children in South America have been coached in small-sided games until the age of around 15 when they are then faced with a decision to switch to 11-a-side professional football. These same methods have been employed to help produce talents from Pele and Zico right up to Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi.

In Italy, Spain and France, children have to wait until they qualify for the under-14 age group before they can compete in 11-a-side matches, and have each won a World Cup within the past four tournaments. “What we are proposing will give them the environment to develop those skills,” explains Southgate, “with 11 v 11, there are fewer touches for players. If we go to that format too young then it becomes a much more of an athletic-based game. We have huge pitches that kids can’t get around. It benefits the physically stronger players but there’s a real danger that we lose the smaller, more technically gifted ones.”

One of the most significant motivations driving Southgate’s proposals is Barcelona’s and Spain’s recent domination of club and international football, borne from very different practices than exist in England. “I suppose we’ve had a Paul Scholes come through who would have been able to play in that Barcelona team because his quality of touch, pass appreciation, ability to play one-touch and to manipulate the ball was up there with them, but would we have produced lots of them like Xavi, Iniesta and Messi? I suspect not,” the former Middlesbrough manager asks. “We would probably have overlooked a lot of those and not necessarily at club level. It might have been years before that. At Sunday football level, the guy who was trying to win a league didn’t pick the smaller kids.”

Southgate’s vision must not be ignored, but condensing the sport and altering the techniques used to train youngsters is just the start. Holland, a nation whose football is traditionally recognized as being more technically adept than in other countries, benefit from an organized grassroots model which William Gaillard, senior advisor to UEFA President Sepp Blatter, has suggested the English FA imitate. The Dutch Football Association (KNVB) is the single governing body of all 2,700 clubs in Holland – 36 of them professional – with around 1billion Euros worth of investment pumped back in to the youth game every year, 90% of which funded by local authorities, the other 10% by the government.

In 2000 the Football Foundation stated that the FA would contribute £20million per year to grassroots football in England, yet by last year the FA’s contribution was only £12m. The Premier League contributes £43.4million, less than 5% of its latest £3.1billion television rights deal, and yet we all expect technically gifted youngsters to break in to an England team capable of winning the World Cup. Southgate is at least on the right path, but the grassroots situation in England is so flawed in every way that a complete overhaul in line with emulating the positive aspects of other, more successful, countries is required.

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