Perhaps this weekend’s semi-hiatus in the football championship (just one game played) came at a good time for sports fans across Ireland, as it coincided with the first weekend of the FIFA World Cup.
** This article first appeared in UnTitled – our weekly GAA Football Championship recap: to receive it direct to your inbox every Monday morning CLICK HERE
The World Cup is a competition renowned for its worldwide appeal and ability to integrate some of the planet’s smallest nations, but generally, one of the favourites will emerge to win the trophy. To that end, an article in The Economist grabbed my attention: “What makes a country good at football?”
While the general tenet of the piece is – as the nature of its publication of origin would suggest – broadly based on an individual country’s underlying economic and sporting factors, the broad conclusion is that successful countries get children playing soccer from as early an age as possible, and, crucially, within a creative environment.
This type of approach has helped transform Germany from a team built on physical prowess, to a more creative, dynamic unit that won the last World Cup. England, masters of failure at international level have managed to win the most recent Under-20 and Under-17 World Cups. France, one of the favourites in Russia, have the second youngest squad at the tournament. The youth structures in these countries are paying off.
But not every nation has subscribed to this theory, instead falling into what the aforementioned article refers to as the “middle income trap, in which developing economies quickly copy technologies from rich ones but fail to implement structural reforms.” In the soccer world, veteran coaches like Guus Hiddink and Marcello Lippi have been parachuted into mediocre footballing nations outside of Europe and South America (think South Korea, China and Australia) to provide a quick-fix:
“A clever manager might bring new tactical fads but cannot produce a generation of creative youngsters. China is said to be paying Marcello Lippi, who led Italy to victory in 2006, $28m a year. Unless he is supported by youth coaches and scouts who reward imaginative play, and a generation of youngsters who love the game, the money will be wasted.”
Take the USA soccer team as an example. They had a moderate level of success under Jurgen Klinsmann up until 2016. But when the German departed the post, their squad entered qualifying for the 2018 World Cup with an average age of close to 29. They failed to qualify.
We are seeing a similar trend in Gaelic football. Many counties are eschewing the development of a creative environment for kids to learn the game and grow into, in favour of cajoling senior players into a limiting playing structure that offers them a perceived best chance to win games. As manager of Donegal in the early 2010s, Jimmy McGuinness was highly pragmatic, introducing a “tactical fad” that was very much about winning in the immediate term.
Whilst this approach was extremely successful, it represented a sea-change in Gaelic football, with copycats springing up everywhere. Monaghan and Tyrone had already been noted for playing in a similar style (that happened to match well with their identity), and smaller counties started playing with double sweeper systems. Even Kerry were dragged down to Donegal’s level, on their way to winning the 2014 All-Ireland.
In 2018 we have seen high-profile wins for Carlow and Fermanagh, playing overtly negative football. That style of play has helped these counties win a couple of games and may grant their fans a day or two out in the early summer sun, but they won’t be troubling the big guns in any shape or form. They have fallen into the same trap as those mediocre soccer teams who risk losing the future generation of players in order to gain immediate results.
It might blow over, but already the trend has spilled into club level, where teams across the country are playing more defensively in order to combat a similar approach from their opponents. What is worse, many clubs are over-paying managers and coaches to implement it.
Every resource that is pumped into producing highly-structured, unimaginative teams at either club or county level, is at the expense of ensuring younger players are playing football in an enjoyable environment. It is a race to the bottom, and enables teams such as Dublin and Kerry to sleepwalk their way to the latter stages of the Championship. Just like Germany and Spain have done in international soccer in the last decade.
The good news is, we are not yet past the point of no return. Rigid football has had limited success. The best way to combat Dublin and Kerry is to maximise the output from your most natural resource. The clubs and counties that show some patience, that get creative in their long-term thinking and planning – both on the field and off – can still reap the real rewards.