19 July 2013

Pressure to win compromising football youth development

(An edited version of this article originally appeared in Republica)

The SAFF U-16 Championship is about to commence and as usual Nepali football fans are clamoring for victory. With the senior national football team in the midst of a twenty-year trophy drought and club sides constantly stumbling in continental competitions, football officials and enthusiasts are often left to turn to the junior teams to redeem Nepal’s football reputation.

Nepal's U-16 team at the 2006 Asian U-16 Championship
The number one mantra of ANFA officials the past few years has been that Nepal is the strongest country in South Asia at the youth level. Presumably this talking point was formulated as a result of Nepal’s de-facto under-14 national team winning consecutive Subroto Cups - one of India’s most prestigious youth tournaments, Nepali junior sides running up large scores in the AFC Festival of Football and Nepal’s under-16 national team qualifying for the finals of the AFC U-16 Championship on multiple occasions.

Despite a few hiccups in results recently that have slightly subdued the bombast, there remain high expectations for Nepal’s youth football national teams to win.  ANFA President Ganesh Thapa just the other day provided a ‘motivational talk’ to the under-16 national team and their head coach, Bal Gopal Maharjan, in an interview talked about how he plans to go all out to win the SAFF U-16 Championship and went as far as to say that a successful campaign by the junior team would inspire the senior team for the upcoming SAFF Championship.

The craving for wins at the junior levels has ironically created an environment that has inadvertently stunted the development of Nepali youth players and as a consequence the senior national team, which is often criticized for lacking new blood.

Most mature football nations look at youth football solely as a breeding ground for future stars. The best youth systems are the ones that graduate the most players to the senior teams - be it for a club or country. Developing players is the priority, winning games is not. Certainly, the top youth football setups such as that of Spain, France and Brazil also tend to win their fair share of trophies at youth level, but that is a testament to the depth of talent those countries produce and not really their emphasis on winning.

A youth system that prioritizes development usually look to develop the weaknesses of players, give more playing time to players with long-term potential and will prepare their players to play in a system similar to that of the senior team. As an example, Spanish national teams at every level practice the exact same set pieces and all teams at Ajax Amsterdam play the same formations and with the same attacking philosophy.

Contrast this with a youth system that emphasizes winning. It will only focus on the strengths of its players, give playing time to the bigger and stronger kids that can impact a game immediately and play whatever formation and style that will help secure victory in the next match.

Nepal currently subscribes to the ‘win at all costs’ philosophy. As a result, we see scenes where coaches play star youth players carrying injuries even if it puts their future careers at risk, officials berate young players for making mistakes damaging their psyche and passion for the game and different formations and styles are utilized from one youth national team to the next.

The former wonder kid of Nepali football – Nirajan Malla, was put under immense pressure to play in the 2009 AFC U-19 Championship qualifiers despite cracking his right ankle a few days before the tournament. Hang around Nepali youth players and one will probably see just as much fear as excitement in their body language. It is easier to guess tomorrow’s weather than how a Nepali youth team will lineup or play.

The ‘win at all costs’ culture has deeply corrupted youth football in Nepal. There is still very little vigilance in vetting over-age players. Youth tournaments lack sportsmanship and are rife with fights, boycotts and protests. The news media have also corroborated by giving undue importance to results of youth competitions and regularly using insensitive jargon such as “destroy,” “demolish” and “slaughter” when verbalizing scorelines.

Nepal’s attitude towards youth football has ultimately comeback to haunt its senior national team. For example only one player, goalkeeper Ritesh Thapa, from Nepal’s under-16 squad that qualified for the 2000 AFC U-16 Championship in Vietnam has been a regular fixture in the senior national team and the ANFA Academy, which pretty much has monopolized selection for the youth national teams, has only produced a single player in Rohit Chand that currently plays in a formidable foreign league.

So as the SAFF U-16 Championship gets underway it would be prudent for all of us – fans, coaches, officials and media, to focus on the development and maturation of Nepal’s players and not whether they lift the trophy in two weeks time.

05 July 2013

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