I was very excited for the start of major European football activity to start, my favorite teams preparing to do battle on the pitch, the transfer window nearing its end with all the excitement that brings, and every team starting with a clean slate. Some more clean than others, and that is what has me a bit down for the start of this season, among other things. Although the move of Bundesliga coverage to a channel I receive is a big plus, being a fan of the German style in general, and feeling that top to bottom the Bundesliga is the most pleasing football to watch on a regular basis.
It is the saga of the transfer market that has me questioning my dedication to some of the business of the leagues in Europe, and elsewhere, that has me feeling this way. The worst in humanity seems to come out during this process, and all the dirty laundry is aired. The fans of the clubs make exclamations, as if it is their money that is being spent. Frankly it is the revenue of the massive TV deals that is driving player compensation and transfer fees more than any other single factor. How else could you explain how teams who play in small, ancient, stadia recoup the cash laid out on new players, the ticket prices have not gone up with the inflation in player salaries. They certainly have gone up in the Premier League the most, but not in Serie A and especially not in Bundesliga.
It is the behavior of teams like Manchester United, who seem to throw endless cash, on the order of 350 million dollars in the last 2 years in transfer fees, with little regard to whether the player fits the system or not. Louis van Gaal seems to be spending money on names only, and when those names don’t work out, see Angel DiMaria, they sell them off to another super-club, Paris Saint-Germain in this case, at a 30% discount with no apparent regard for the consequences. Where is the development that used to define Man U? Where are the vaunted Chelsea academy players in the Premier League lineups? The Manchester City development players? What has happened to building a team, at least in part, from your home grown prospects? Even the astonishing record of La Mesia of Barcelona appears to be slowing in terms of presenting first team players to the club.
These players are now at clubs in Holland and Belgium and the lower half of Italian and Spanish leagues. Getting experience at lower levels it seems, at the cost of roster spots for players who have already proven some ability in a league somewhere. Willian at Chelsea is a perfect example, I am not convinced that a home grown player would be a lesser candidate for playing a mostly defensive role on the right for Chelsea. It makes no sense. Managers like Jose Mourinho have no trust in players from his own academy system. Is familiarity a negative? Does he feel like the players are better developed in Brazil, Holland, Croatia? It is a sign that the English top division is no longer very English, at least among the top teams.
The Bundesliga works closely with the FA in Germany on development, many German players are stockpiled on German teams. Even the mighty Bavarians from Munich are primarily a German team at their core. Philip Lahm has been the captain for years, and is probably one of the most versatile players in Bundesliga, if not International, history. He can play the Pivote, he can play fullback, he can attack, he can defend, he makes football look like a childs game. Not to mention the man who will certainly break the all time World Cup scoring record, Tomas Muller, who is not even the number 1 striker on Bayern Munich. That honor is reserved for the Polish superstar Robert Lewandoski.
Speaking on the Sirius XMFC show “Beyond the Pitch” on August 14th, the Irish football writer and critic Mr Eamon Duffy declared that there will never be a generation of players to match the players we have seen up to this point in history. He seems to place the blame in several areas, distraction of young players who no longer play footy in the streets and in the parks around the globe as much as they used to, and in the case of places like England it is a change in culture, much like what we see in America, a shift to the “pay to play” system. Very few clubs are developing young players as much as they used to. Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Spain, many countries, even Brazil isn’t exempt from criticism in this area. We see it on the national side of Brazil where only Neymar jr. could be seen as an international superstar, where just ten years ago there was fierce competition for offensive roles on the national team. Now we have Jo’ and Fred…… need I elaborate?
The point is that certain leagues work with their academies, other leagues rely on foreign academies and systems. There are some academies in England that have been producing good English players for English sides, Southampton is probably the best example. Everyone loves Steven Gerrard and his loyalty to one club, from the time he was a small child he wore the red of Liverpool, he lived and died the red of Liverpool. Why has the dynamic in England changed so much? Speaking with English coaches and fans, in a paraphrase, its the same issue that America faces: pay to play.
Long gone are the days when kids played pick up games of footy on their own, with their mates, unsupervised and improvisational. England has adopted the American system of having the parents pick up the tab for their kids to play footy. This phenomenon is killing the game. This is NOT the case in Germany, or Holland, or Brazil, or China, or other country’s where the Worlds best players are coming from. Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly structure to the development in those countries, and the competition to get on a good team is fierce, but it doesn’t depend on the parents salary. That is the American way to build soccer. Pay to Play.
The enemy of creativity in footy is over-coaching and not allowing “free play”. Take those conditions and apply a financial barrier to entry and you have a caste system of players, many of whom are only playing because they can afford to play. Perhaps their parents are putting pressure on them to stick with it, even when the passion for the game has left the child. They may reach a point and realize that they are not for the game, but parents don’t like to invest so much time, money and effort into a losing battle, so they pressure the kids into sticking it out. This builds animosity towards the game, which is exactly the opposite of what we want our next generation to experience.
I recently attended a coaching class, and one of the instructors was commenting on how important it is for coaches to understand that “parents want those little plastic trophies” and how that was his goal for his U9 team. This is in direct opposition not only to the directive of USSF coaching instruction, but common sense for developing young players. It is the skills training and awareness at U9 that is the most important qualities to be reenforced. Not the trophies. This is a direct result of Pay to Play.
I may sound like a socialist here, but the money of the game is ruining it at the grassroots level, at the youth level, at the professional level. Where is the joy for the game? Where is the loyalty to a club? Where is the line between football being a business and being a sport? The lines are blurring more and more every year. The fact that Manchester United looks at players as disposable form year to year certainly carries a message down the branches of the football world. I have seen great and wonderful sites and had great experiences through football, none of them were based on anything but the sport and the sporting nature of the players and coaches involved. I feel as if the corrupting nature of money is strangling the sporting element out of the game at times.
I find myself cheering on the Eibar’s of the world. The improbable runs of unexpected passion fueled runs, like the Costa Rican team in the 2014 World Cup. I refuse to be a simple consumer of the product of football. I choose to make a difference in any small way I can. I refuse to let the hack journalists that try to run me and my cohorts and our efforts down, simply because they have no accomplishments of their own.
I am feeling down and need to get out and see some footy that is played for the pure joy of the game. My intern at work has a roommate that plays for the local college, I am excited to see them play, its a small school and none of the players are there on Soccer scholarships. The academics come first. They play for the love of the game. That excites me in a certain way. As much as I love watching the great players of the PL and Bundesliga, my perspective is changing, and the integrity of the game itself is becoming more important to me than seeing it played by perfect players. Even though I finish this article watching the Bundesliga opening match, it isn’t quite as fulfilling as it has been in years past.
Be the change you want to see in the world, support local football. And happy birthday to one of my favorite people in the world Mr Jon Townsend. Send him birthday wishes at @jon_townsend3 on Twitter, and follow his blog at farpostfooty.com . Also my best wishes go to a proud Marine name Matt. I am reminded of the Honor of the USMC and their dedication to this country when I read about the Embassy Marines who went to Cuba to raise the flag at the embassy, it was the very same Marines who took the flag down in 1961. A reminder that Honor is something to be respected. The men and women of the USMC are some of the finest people i have ever met in my life. The best footy players remind me of Marines, creative, thinking on their feet, loyal, tough, definitely not robots, real people.