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When I was coaching in New Zealand, we had two coaches in charge of our senior men’s team. One was an old-school Kiwi and the other had just come over from Brazil to work with him. They were both experienced coaches, with years of high-level coaching in their own countries. I remember turning up at the club one day to find them in a heated discussion. They were re-enacting a situation they had experienced in the senior team’s game the day before: A cross had come in to our far post and had been headed toward the top corner by one of the opponent’s forwards. One of our defenders standing nearby had – according to the Kiwi – not tried hard enough to get to the ball to prevent it crossing the line. The Brazilian was pointing out that if the defender had launched himself head-first across the goal-line (as the Kiwi would have liked him to) he would have had a good chance of flying into the goalpost. The argument had clearly been going on for some time; both coaches were completely frustrated with the other’s reluctance to see things from their point of view. The Kiwi was adamant that the defender should give 100% effort in every situation regardless of potential injury, and the Brazilian just didn’t see what the big deal was and was more concerned with why the team subsequently gave the ball away from the centre kick.

What I think I was witnessing here was a clash of footballing cultures. The New Zealand culture of sport is similar to the English, placing high value on effort, determination and grit. For the Kiwi coach it was criminal for the defender not to make the effort to save the header. The Brazilian culture values expression, rhythm and individuality, and the Brazilian coach saw the goal as an “ugly goal” but didn’t place any blame at all on the defender on the line.  

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I have told this little story to help demonstrate how football serves different purposes in different countries. In England, like in New Zealand, we play football like it’s a War. Gianluca Vialli (in his excellent book with Marcotti, The Italian Job) says the Italians view football as Work. Perhaps it is Art in Holland, and Dance in Brazil? Who knows, I am just guessing – but certainly it seems obvious that football is not simply football. Football changes from one place to another, and these changes affect not only the way the game is played but also how successfully and beautifully the game is played.

A national game for everyone?

Football in England is not represented by a cross-section of society. There are many types of children that will not make it as footballers or drop-out of the game prematurely – be that because they are physically small, born in the wrong month, or - as I heard at an Academy recently - they simply “don’t want it enough”. I think one of the key things we can learn from other countries is how to make our football more inclusive. By having core values of determination, physical size and strength and a never-say-die attitude, we alienate many children from the game. Many youngsters don’t play football like it’s war, and are pushed away from the game by the “How much do you want it? Get stuck in! Go on my son!” attitudes that are prevalent in many club and team environments. We need to allow children to like the game for other reasons, and allow them to express themselves in games in ways which aren’t just anger, strength and endless running.

Our coaching courses too are different from those in other countries and cultures. Many courses presume that we all need to learn the same thing. They are run on the premise that the course tutor knows best and the knowledge they have is better than that of the learners. There is very little investigation and discussion of alternate views on these courses. We are told to create learning environments for the children we coach that are learner-centred and allow the learner to come up with their own answers, but this same philosophy doesn’t seem to extend to national courses for coaches. This, along with (the diminishing but still existing) old-school football atmospheres and attitudes, alienates some people. This is to the detriment of football as it is the people who have the brains to walk away from football and seek purpose elsewhere whose brains and ideas we are in most need of. By not being welcoming to new ideas, new ways of doing things and new values, football in England is stuck.

Can you learn a culture?

Many English coaches travel abroad to learn about football. But mostly they go for a day or two, on a study visit, maybe stay a week at most. Often these study trips are to countries that are doing well in international football. Coaches used to travel to Brazil to learn, a decade ago it was to France, now it’s to Spain. They come back with new ideas, new sessions and new motivation. But these ideas and sessions are not enough on their own to change the development process and to build the type of player being produced by Spain now. This is because the player is a product of their environment, and the values and culture that underpin that environment have the biggest impact on the development of that player. In other words, Spanish footballers aren’t different because the coach has put their cones out differently. It has a lot more to do with the underlying values and expectations within the football culture there, and this is something that can’t be written down in a coaching manual or brought home in a log-book.

In order to understand another culture we need to live and work there. We need to learn the language, we need to surround ourselves with the foreign.  We need to put ourselves in the vulnerable position of the learner – asking questions, making mistakes and slowly understanding the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between what we’re used to and what we are experiencing. These are things that English people can do as well as anyone else, yet in football it doesn’t seem to happen. Instead we have an abundance of foreign players and managers here, learning and understanding from our football culture and increasing their knowledge, skill-set and depth of understanding.

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There will of course be some who say that we don’t need to change football in England, that we won the World Cup with the same set-up etc. I think these people are deluded. Don’t say it too loudly, but England have never actually been that good at football for any length of time. Sure we’ve had the odd game here and there when it’s gone right, but more often it’s been dull, unimpressive and at times humiliating. It’s not that English football is broken, it’s more that is has never worked very well at all. And there don’t seem to be any strong signs that we’re catching up with the best countries in the world. We need to do something differently! If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got.

Going back to the Brazilian coach from our earlier story: He left New Zealand after just one season. He said to me on his departure that the kiwis would never be any good at football and should stick to sports that fit their values of hard-work, determination and physical endurance. He suggested rowing. (Perhaps that’s the answer for England too. Parker – Cahill – Barry - Terry in a four man scull? I think they’d beat Xavi – Iniesta - Pedro - Villa). But maybe, frustrated as he was, he went back to Brazil a little wiser, with one or two more strings to his bow, a deeper understanding of the effects of environment on learning, and the role of culture in development.

I conclude with a suggestion: I believe we need more young coaches to learn their trade abroad. I think this country would benefit from having English coaches return to clubs here after serving a two-year apprenticeship overseas. They would be immersed in another culture, language and ways of doing things. They would have experience of the systems and environments that are producing great international players, and of the cultural values that underpin these systems. They would recognise that children’s football needs to be for everyone. And they would return not only with new ideas but with an appreciation that football doesn’t need to be War. It doesn’t need to involve throwing yourself head-long into goalposts. It can be Work, it can be Dance, it can be Art. It can be Joy.

Mark Carter, Oct 2011    

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