Rinus Michels’ model for Dutch youth development is certainly a marker that this country would do well to reference (even more so considering Sunday’s World Cup exit) because the line between the professional and amateur game is much finer in Holland. Van Gaal’s tweaking of Michels’ model has resulted in the KNVB funding more age group overseers, technical coordinators and more qualified coaches than ever before – all in the amateur game. The repercussion of such a support system is a stance voiced by Arnold Muhren (former Holland international and Ajax coach) that ‘a player can go from non-league and become a professional.’
The rule to becoming a professional player is, invariably, being part of an academy from as young an age as 7. The glaring exception in this country that proves the rule is Ian Wright; though failing to impress in trials at Southend and Brighton it was Crystal Palace scout, Pete Prentice, who happened to see Wright playing in a local Sunday League match and invited him for a trial at Selhurst Park. 239 league goals later and I think it’s fair to say Wright knew how to play his position.
My argument isn’t that any Sunday league footballer can make the grade at Arsenal; it’s more that, in our current system, the chasm between amateur and professional football is positively gargantuan. There are definitely hundreds of very talented players who, after being released in their teens, have only local amateur clubs to join because they are the latest victims of the pro football scrapheap, without any hand to guide them. This is the biggest malpractice in our game; Dutch professional teams are obligated to find released players suitable amateur clubs by an agreement with the KNVB (in Holland the amateur game is highly coordinated, regulated and reviewed – when an amateur club can boast over 70 teams with qualified coaches from the under 6s all the way through to the first team, like OJC Rosmalen, we can see how the gap between professional and non-professional football has become much finer).
This only goes so far in explaining singularities like Ian Wright. A further mystery is the likes of Di Natale, Luca Toni and Arshavin who all arrived on the international scene relatively late and completely unannounced. Luca Toni, now 33, was a journeyman of Serie B and Serie C1 before signing for Palermo (then an ambitious Serie B outfit) in 2003. 30 goals in his debut season brought promotion and 21 goals the following year, his first in Serie A, brought acclaim. For Fiorentina he scored 33 goals and for Bayern Munich an incredible 39 goals in his debut seasons for the respective clubs. Luca Toni went from obscurity to being one of the most prolific goal scorers in Europe for five years (and this all happened after the age of 25 in the topflight). Di Natale just had his most successful year ever by netting 29 goals for Udinese and finishing as top scorer in Serie A and he is 32 years old. Arshavin, now 29, is another player who was brought to the global media’s attention in 2008 by Zenit’s UEFA Cup triumph and Russia’s European Championship semi final run.
These players prove that talent does not run on a time-line. Diego Forlan was laughed at by many English fans yet he’s still in South Africa and could very feasibly be playing in a World Cup semi final – twice European Golden Boot winner with two different clubs in Spain is no fluke either. There are multiple reasons for his failure to impress in England and his subsequent success in Spain (the players around him, the coaches, his role in the team, the playing environment, maturity etc the list could go on) and he was lucky enough – and determined enough – to strike a balance at the right time.
This is why when fans and pundits dismiss 21, 22, 23 and even 24 year olds as ‘not having what it takes’ I am left wondering why, as a people, we look to castigate before we look to encourage. Unlike the question of late bloomers, this is a simpler answer: it is always easier to destroy something than it is to create. The same can be said for talent.
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