Elite youth football — options and possibilities

BY ANDREW EDWARDS

Sunday, November 19, 2017

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The world over, serious football associations, leagues and clubs have and are continuing to increase their investments in the systematic development of elite youth players. The models are quite varied and unique to particular jurisdictions, however, some core principles are ever present.

Still a fledgling footballing nation with a very unorthodox and weak football culture, Jamaica needs to act in urgency in order for us not to be left further behind. In our region (CONCACAF) and subregion (CFU) formerly less-accomplished nations have caught up and some have even surpassed us.

Whilst it is undeniably true that it takes cash to care, there are enough testimonies around to give credence to the adage “where there is a will, there is a way”. In fact, it is within reason to argue that with the right attitude and commitment the possibility exists for us to develop a product so attractive that sponsors will queue up to be associated with it.

Around the globe in countries with strong football cultures, there are well-established national youth leagues from as early as U-8 (some being televised live or delayed), several starting at U-12/13, all the way up to U19/23. Iceland's historic maiden run in last year's European Championships and their storied first-ever World Cup qualification for Russia 2018, and England's unprecedented successes at international youth tournaments in 2017, are current references to the kinds of successes possible with strong youth programmes. England qualified for the finals of four of the five youth tournaments contested in 2017, winning three. In the other tournament, they made it to the semi-finals and lost on penalties.

In both Iceland and England, the national federations created and facilitated the development of these programmes through consultations, policies and sustainable management of the initiatives decided on. Key to these was the focus on coaching development.

All coaches operating at the elite youth level have and must obtain the highest qualifications possible. They have frequent consultations/reviews/evaluations with the head coach of the senior team and the technical directors, to ensure the programmes are meeting specified goals and objectives. A technical review at the end of each season and before the start of each new season is commonplace throughout Europe.

As a matter of priority, Jamaica needs to first bring all stakeholders to the discussion table and agree on a sustainable elite youth development programme for the foreseeable future. These discussions must include establishing elite youth leagues, coaching education, a national playing philosophy, and establishing international youth tournaments.

It is instructive to note that Spain, Germany, Belgium, France have all gone through a football renaissance of sorts that reached maturity after 8-10 years of sustained investment in their programmes, particularly their youth set-ups.

Even without any new money, there are opportunities for the consolidation of funding currently scattered in football and consequently having very little or no significant impact on the development of youth players to prepare them for professional and international football.

Recently we saw INSPORTS getting involved with a preseason schoolboy football tournament, with a view towards expansion. Is this the best possible outlay for those funds? Then there is a responsibility residing with the Premier League Clubs Association (PLCA) to apportion a percentage of their income to the development of youth players.

Additionally, there are the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF)-sponsored youth leagues as well as numerous others across the parishes including the Digicel Elite League. When consolidated, it is conceivable that we may very well have enough or nearly enough funding available to establish proper elite youth leagues. These leagues should last a minimum of eight months with teams playing a minimum of 35 games, and be subdivided at three age levels — U-12, U-14 and U-16.

As a supplement to fillip the development to be gained from these elite youth leagues, there are boundless opportunities for developing our very own international tournaments. Beyond the football there is the business of sports tourism and the commensurate benefits from same.

In addition, the very best of our elite youth players ought to compete in international tournaments outside our shores, even without being national team players.

For optimal success, all coaches working at this level ought to have the highest qualifications possible and be exposed to international standards and best practices. Many of the major European nations have an international office within their respective federations. Among the mandates of these international offices is outreach to less-developed football nations. The Dutch had, in the recent past extended their outreach for coaching education in Trinidad and Tobago.

In 2016, the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) benefitted from a similar outreach of the international office of the Italian FA by bringing Mr Marcello Lippi for a series of short courses in the Caribbean. Jamaica can also, either in concert with the CFU or independently, pursue coaching education programmes through one of these international offices.

Our coaches need that level of coaching education. Another option which can be accessed is for select coaches to spend observation periods of 4-6 weeks, at a minimum, in professional football environments — where possible active involvement should be sought.

The debates continue without resolution about the establishment of a national playing philosophy. Some have taken umbrage to the “demands” of Craig Butler and his charge Leon Bailey for the articulation of a national playing philosophy.

However, a national playing philosophy is necessary for continuity and sustainability of development. Players deserve and need to have the benefit of a playing philosophy that postulates consistency from one level to the next. It will be a massive disenfranchisement of our next generation of players should we arrive at the next World Cup cycle (2022), which gets underway in 2019, without agreeing and establishing a national playing philosophy.

Strong youth leagues over time naturally accrue benefits to national youth and senior teams, opening doors for the main beneficiaries (players) to immense possibilities. Football is, without equal, the most loved sport in Jamaica, attracting masses of kids from all over the island — most of whom are from the lower rungs of our socio-economic profile. Providing real hope and opportunity for these kids is not only a responsibility for now, but for generations to come.

As a side bar, should we have a VISION 2030 plan for our football?

Editor's note: Andrew Edwards is former head coach of Jamaica's National Under-17 men's team and current technical director of Genesis Football Academy and head coach of Manchester High School.

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