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New Article: What Can Football Learn From the Olympics?

There was a lot of negative reaction to the GB Men's football team's defeat on Saturday night followed by some rather predictable attacks on the intelligence, lifestyle and even manners of the footballers compared to those of our Olympians. Given that the footballers ejection came immediately after the three individual golds that was perhaps, in part, understandable but beyond the knee jerks are there other lessons to be learnt.

To put this is context we have to remember that as recently as the '96 games in Atlanta GB won only one gold medal. By coincidence, that was the year "football came home" and the last time London (and the rest of England) hosted a major sporting tournament. It was also the last time either a GB or England men's football team went beyond a quarter-final.

So why has British Olympic sport moved forward while UK football seems further away from achieving international (as opposed to club) success then ever?

In part athletic success is cyclical in that all nations have batches of good athletes coming through at different times so what appears to be a revival is in fact just a blip. Australia are a classic example of this. So far they have won only two golds at London 2012. In previous years Australia's success and GBs failure was attributed to a number of factors including the greater Aussie will to win, their superior facilities, our lack of competitive sport in schools, Xboxs or the selling off of school playing fields, (insert party political rant of your choice here).

Yet here we are 12 years after the Sydney games beating the pants off the convicts while the once majestic Oz Cricket team sits behind the Poms in the Test ratings. So was Aussie success based after all on a few superstars such as Ian Thorpe rather than an inherent upper hand over the rest of the world?

And it can work the other way. English Rugby was top of the world in 2003 yet an official report on England's 2011 campaign "shambles" blamed "greedy players and weak leaders". Prospects for the 2015 rugger-bugger get together in England are not seen as promising.

So why are we winning now and what can football learn?

Reason 1: Funding

Lottery funding for sport and Olympic support in particular started to flow after the lottery itself began in 1994. It has taken time for that money to filter in but it is no coincidence and no surprise that more money equals more success. At the same time some Australian based Lifers have said that Aussie funding has been cut. But there is plenty of money in Football so what is the difference? It seems that money is primarily being spent on transfer fees or wages but not on a whole range of coaches, physios, sport scientists, equipment managers and arenas (such as National Veledrome in Manchester).

While English clubs, especially at the top level are flush with money and coaches etc how do they compare with overseas club and more importantly how does the English national team set up compare with their competitor nations and with the Olympic sport? England planned to build the National Football Centre in Burton as far back as 2000 yet it is still under construction. It is due to open in 2012 but for our mega rich national game to have no centre for so long, no centre for training coaches, players, officials etc while the likes of Cycling and Rowing have just that is indicative of how far behind the curve soccer in England is.

The delay to completing St George's Park also points to the second reason for Olympic success, The National bodies.

Organisation

The FA have long been an easy target for blame for any failing in English game and much of it is at least partially deserved.

But similar was said of the people running British Athletics and other Olympic sports. There were a myriad of different bodies, amateur and professional, local and national, often in conflict with each other who, to some, seemed more interesting in maintaining their own existence that championing participation and elite sports. Lottery funding sharpened up a lot of national bodies who were forced to come up to scratch or miss out. Out went the blazers and in came the tracksuits.

It would be easy to say that with all the lottery money thrown at these sports it was simple for the Administrators to sit back and watch the medals roll in but there is more than that. Programme Directors appeared who managed sports as a whole, brought in the best coaches and experts be they British or not (the GB rowing coach is German for example). But this didn't happen overnight. What those programme directors added was vision.

Compare this the four UK football nations attitude to the Mens football team. The Olympics was seen not just as a waste of time but as a threat to the blazers of the Scottish and Irish FAs. While other countries saw the tournament as a vital training ground for youth development as well as a realistic chance of winning a medal GB was more worried about who it upset. A manager was finally appointed less than a year before the tournament began and the team was allowed to play just one warm up game.

Meanwhile we continue to have the FA, the FA Premier League and the Football League often working at odds with each other and rarely in unison to promote the long term success of the English National Team. The situation in the other three home countries is no better.

Vision

Olympic sport is by its nature medium term. The games happen every four years which lends itself to planning ahead and building teams during the gaps between Olympiads. But Rowing, Cycling, Athletics et al had more than that. They have a vision of what the sport will be, it's participation levels, the number of competitors as well as the number of medals because it follows that the more of the first you have the more likely you are to see the latter. GB boxing is a prime example. Amir Khan won a Silver in Athens 2004 as the only GB boxer. Now we have 10 boxers (seven men and three women) at London 2012 with an expectation of a best post-war medal haul.

These sports plan ahead and have a clear vision for the future, they build on success and use the winners they have as role models for future recruitment.

English football has no vision or consistency. Managers change constantly as do the recruitment criteria. "Passion" is still a word used to describe an ideal candidate where as other sports have long ago moved to terms such a "vision", "planning" or "scientific". Football does not have a powerful, influential programme director to compare with the rowing or cycling czars. How the FAs Director of Football Development, Trevor Brooking, must envy his counter parts in other sports.

No team manager is allowed to plan over four years for the next world cup as success must come now. Even a friendly defeat brings call for the manager's head and for young players to be banished forever from future squads. This short-termism means that little or nothing is learnt from each tournament and there is no building towards long term improvement or success.

So Football, the money is there, if you can wrestle it away from the clubs, and the blueprint for success is there too.

The question now is are you brave enough to follow it?


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Comments

  • Excellent post Henry.
    It would all be so much better with a massive push to increase the number of qualified coaches.
  • Although we appear to have no money for transfers right now I am very pleased that Charlton have invested in Academy and coaching and echoes your sentiments above Henry. Nice piece!
  • All great thought provokers Henry and undoubtedly your 3 main threads are all areas for significant improvement.

    I can't help thinking that, also, football is further complicated by the fact that it's a team sport and success is judged in many different ways.

    Contrast Jessica Ennis and Wayne Rooney for example. The only aim of Jess is to be the number 1 in the world at her sport and there's no hiding place - she either is or she isn't. The only way she can give herself the best opportunity is to be the absolute best she can be right from her diet to, no doubt, how many times she has sex a week. It's complete focus from start to finish, no other option.

    So let's move on to our Wayne - I find it less appealing to dwell on his lovemaking habits and I wouldn't mind betting his diet could be improved. But does it 'need' to be? He may only be the world's 30th best footballer for all we know but as long as he knocks a few in for United and does the business from time to time for England that seems to be enough to give him superstar status and £150k a week. He's not focused on being the best he can be because we simply don't demand it strongly enough.

    Add this to the fact that English players are playing a team game with, generally, more skilled counterparts from abroad we maybe overestimate their skills to be at the same level. This becomes woefully exposed at big tourney time.

    So, I'd add a fourth thread - Focus. Until we, coaches and players alike demand that individual footballers become as good as they can be we'll be stuck with over-hyped and overpaid sportsmen.



  • I'd be wary about taking what works from other sports and expecting it to work in football. In football there is a strong team/tribal emphasis which doesn't exist in other sports. In athletics the club system is there - but the talented athletes need the exposure from the olympics for themselves and their sports and above all they need lottery funding. This last week might be the only time we see judo, gymnastics, sailing, track cycling, rowing, taekwondo etc on mainstream television. Football however is ubiquitous on TV and the media generally.

    What lottery funding has done though in cycling, rowing etc is two fold - it helps to keep talented sports men and women in the sport and stops them drifting out of their sport once a few injuries creep in and families start to grow and need feeding. Secondly it gives them a support staff - coaches are retained and trained themselves. Coaching the coaches is what has made Spain, Italy and Germany etc strong sides in football. Compare the number of UEFA qualified coaches in those countries and in England you start to see why our national team suffers. Spain internationally were a joke a few years ago - they had good teams and players but at World/European championships they never did anything. They went back to basics, looked to the next generation and after and set about making sure that there was a conveyor belt of trained, talented kids coming through who could play to orders and knew what they were doing on and off the pitch. Young players are not just thrown in and left to sink or swim and they are not over-played.

    On that look how much football players like Steve Gerrard, Michael Owen and other talented players miss every year because they were over-played when young - that rarely happens in Europe. In Germany the constant series of knocks, niggles and minor injuries that British players suffer from are known as "English injuries" - they come from being overplayed, and the Germans call weeks when they have midweek matches "English weeks" because they perceive that we play far too much football. Less to them is more.

    So we need more properly trained UEFA coaches and an attitude that coaches the whole player - giving them educational qualifications and a wider perspective to add to their football coaching. Short-termism - getting players patched up and thrown onto the pitch rarely has a long term benefit.
  • I find all of the stick that footballers get in this country to be quite tedious. They get paid a certain amount for a reason. Playing for Chelsea or Manchester United is a bigger deal than being the talk of the town once every 4/8 years in the Olympics.

    I honestly think the supporters of the England team need to take a long hard look at themselves as well. I had the feeling going into Euro 2012 that a lot of our 'fans' were just waiting for them to fail so that they could just berate them and come out with the same old boring argument of "overpaid, egotistical blah blah".

    However, any of the athletes that have failed so far in the Olympics for Team GB aren't met with anywhere near the same abuse. They are given 100% support and affection.

    Gary Neville summed it up pretty well when he said that playing for England was always uncomfortable because you got the impression that the supporters were never fully committed to helping out. I believe him too.

    All this talk of how much they get paid has absolutely NOTHING to do with the players themselves, it's down to the BUSINESS of the game and 99% of fans don't seem to have the ability to get their heads around that when they go on their rants.
  • Add this to the fact that English players are playing a team game with, generally, more skilled counterparts from abroad we maybe overestimate their skills to be at the same level. This becomes woefully exposed at big tourney time.

    So, I'd add a fourth thread - Focus. Until we, coaches and players alike demand that individual footballers become as good as they can be we'll be stuck with over-hyped and overpaid sportsmen.


    Hence we need to coach the coaches - build from the bottom up not the current top down attitude. That starts with identifying and nurturing talent.


  • Add this to the fact that English players are playing a team game with, generally, more skilled counterparts from abroad we maybe overestimate their skills to be at the same level. This becomes woefully exposed at big tourney time.

    So, I'd add a fourth thread - Focus. Until we, coaches and players alike demand that individual footballers become as good as they can be we'll be stuck with over-hyped and overpaid sportsmen.


    Hence we need to coach the coaches - build from the bottom up not the current top down attitude. That starts with identifying and nurturing talent.


    I'd go along with that and, connected to it, to make sure their early playing experience doesn't detriment development.

  • I think it is important to note that a lot of Olympians get to the top and consider winning gold success. Most of them consider silver as failure. Our footballers are overpaid from a very young age. They can become millionaires without being that good. They aim lower but expect more reward. Our football team went to the euros to get to the last 8. They consider that success.
    I went to the rowing and sat with the Aussies and Kiwis. Lots of friendly banter. Made me think of the twats I will be sitting next to next season, heart sinks. Some idiot on this forum started talking about priveledge and money. Maybe he should mention class? You can be poor, you can be thick, but you can still have class. A lot of the olympians had real class. I can't think of any footballers who have any.
    Good post by the way.
  • Nice one, masicat
  • Chris Powell had, and has, class in abundance, but I agree with your general gist.
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  • Strangely Henry I think that the money in football has been used wisely and achieved what those that had it wanted. The clubs have lots of money and they all compete well in the CL - which is their aim.

    The national team is funded from selling England games to the broadcasters, and it doesn't generate anywhere near as much money as the clubs get. The FA are also hamstrung by the hugely over budget Wembley. It is one of the reasons why they have had Monster Trucks, as well as other things, at Wembley, and why we keep playing friendlies at home to teams that have a big draw, rather than teams that might help us develop confidence.

    In order forth FA to implement something that will increase the success of the national team they need millions and millions of pounds.

    Man Utd and Chelsea, the two biggest spenders in recent years have been in several CL finals, and have both win it in recent years (and this with Barcelona being such a strong team).

    Money will buy success in the end. It doesn't guarantee winni, but will ensure success relative to having no money. The issue is that the FA just don't have enough of it. I can't see hat changing any time soon all the while the Premier League is able to sell it's rights for so much money, and have no obligation to share that money with the FA.

    The Premier League don't need the FA or a successful England team. Frankly they don't actually need any English players, so they don't care how good the English players are.
  • edited August 2012
    Perhaps if the England football team really want to be serious about being the best - they need to do what has happened in cricket & have central contracts - no coincidence that England have become mightily successful in the Test arena since the players became primarily focussed on the international game.

    Except this is never going to happen.

    Unlike pretty much every other sport (apart from maybe the American pro-sports Ice Hockey/Baseball/Gridiron etc), in football the club game comes first.

    Agree on the need for better coaching, development etc - but the National team would be a lucky side beneficiary of this as opposed to the targeted principle benefactor
  • Football is a true global sport - not true of rowing or cycling (how many world class African or Asian competitors are there?)

    Football is a technically more difficult and subtle team sport - the low scoring nature makes luck a bigger factor. There is more that can go wrong when you have so many 'moving parts,. The opposition can set out to nullify your strengths and exploit your weaknesses - again not true in rowing or cycling (at least the time trial type).

    Cultural aspects are relevant in football - there is only one way to row or cycle. If you take a group of equally talented and determined rowers or cyclists, the ones with the most funding will win more often than not.

    I am not suggesting we can't improve but in a global sport, we punch 'at our weight' for a nation of 45m or so people.

  • Oakster said:



    Unlike pretty much every other sport (apart from maybe the American pro-sports Ice Hockey/Baseball/Gridiron etc), in football the club game comes first.

    As it does for most people on here, judging by the comments whenever England play.

  • All I have learnt is that the next generation of England footballers will be just as shit at penalties as the previous one.

    Nice shirt though.
  • Good article. I think a key factor is competition. Large parts of the world don't care about a lot of sports that GB has done well in. Brazil and Argentina will not lose sleep about being bested at horsey stuff, sailing, rowing and cycling. I think I heard a stat that South America has won something like 30 golds in history, but 8 world cups means a lot more in the grand scheme. A relatively small bit of funding can help a nation excell at minority events, but with everyone in the world prioritising soccer it is much harder.
  • Football will always be different, because the clubs are so large and have so much more importance. In most Olympic sports there are no teams outside the national teams.

    You wouldn't have Sir Chris Hoy or Jessica Ennis arriving knackered at a World Championships after a tiring club season. Hockey players may have their clubs, but they are of so little importance to the national team.

    With sports like Cycling, you only need a small core base of elite competitors to win lots of medals, swimming is the same.
  • True but does that mean that England team set up can learn nothing from Olympic sport?

    I hear "That wouldn't work here" so often as an excuse not to change.

    What the FA should be asking is - "What does apply to our situation and how can we make a difference?"
    Huskaris said:

    All I have learnt is that the next generation of England footballers will be just as shit at penalties as the previous one.

    And again that is the problem. Our players are "shit" at penalties so we accept that? It is unchangeable and will always be that way? Some managers don't even bother to practice them.

    Instead the England set up should be asking the other sports "How do you prepare players for high pressure moments? What physical and mental help do you give them?"

    But we don't. We believe we are "shit" at penalties and we also believe that we are "unlucky" or that a penalty shoot out is a "lottery" when it clearly isn't. So we keep on losing on penalties.



  • perhaps the FA could help fund club academys for clubs under a certain turnover with the millions they used to piss up the wall on foreign managers?

    :)
  • What the FA could learn, is that strong technical leadership given the right support can get you results, Dave Brailsford has been given complete control of how cycling operates in Britain, but no one at the FA has the same control. Also football is a deeply conservative sport in the main, and I don't know whether having a team at St Georges Park who look at marginal gains would have the same chance in the childish world of football, to do what the cycling team has done in Manchester.
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  • Very good article, Henry and some excellent posts in response.

    I'll only comment on what Henry refers to a 'the blazers'. It is absolutely spot on.

    OK, the Premier League is basically a business and has to be run as such but the FA is in desperate need of entering the 21st century. Look at the organisations running the various Olympic sports; mainly ex-athletes, professionals or top amateurs with the best coaches. The FA is still run by a bunch of ageing bumbling amateurs (with the honourable exception of Trevor Brooking). They worry that the amateur game will be alienated if there's an influx of professionals on board. Why? Who is better placed to run the FA? Someone with a number of years as a professional player, maybe a few years in coaching or managing who wants to remain actively involved with the game, or Sir Bernard Snottynose-Slobberer, public schoolboy, put some money into a local team as a favour many years ago, became the president of the county FA as a thank-you and later becomes elected to the FA board knowing precisely nothing about the professional game.

    Maybe an exaggeration but how far off the truth?

    Should the FA figureheads be people we as football fans have never heard of? Should these people be in charge of the whole of football, from grass roots coaching to the National team?

    Get people in there that the players (and fans) at all levels can identify with.
  • We shall have to see that effects of grass roots football has had the benefit's it was supposed to pass on.
    There is money in football, but not at lower league, or non league football I have to sadly report.
    Because of the antics of the rich super clubs, Man City, Chelsea, Man Utd and so on the perception is that footballers are all spoilt, overpaid and treated like royalty. They may well be at the clubs I have mentioned, try asking Welling United, Ebbsfleet, and any local non league club and you will get a rather sobering answer.
  • While the clubs have all the power, and can bring in players from all over the world, the National team will struggle. Not only can they buy international stars for their 1st team, they can also bring in the best youngsters too. Man U, City, Arsenal etc would still thrive even with no British players, or the token one to 'battle in midfield'.
    Remember Lilishall, where Scott Parker went, you can have a central acedemy there teaching players the right things, but once out in the outside world, the FA has no control over them, they could be playing a passing game under Brendan Rogers, or a physical game under Tony Pulis.

    Possibly an easier task would be to get the swimming team to learn the lessons from cycling, as our swimmers have largely underperformed.
  • Good article. I think a key factor is competition. Large parts of the world don't care about a lot of sports that GB has done well in. Brazil and Argentina will not lose sleep about being bested at horsey stuff, sailing, rowing and cycling. I think I heard a stat that South America has won something like 30 golds in history, but 8 world cups means a lot more in the grand scheme. A relatively small bit of funding can help a nation excell at minority events, but with everyone in the world prioritising soccer it is much harder.

    Actually Argentina would be gutted about the horsey stuff - it is a class/historical issue - which may explain the obsession with a sport they can afford to win at.
  • There are very few team sports being played at the this Olympics, other than football, hockey, waterpolo, basketball most sports on offer consists of groups of individuals with their own personal retinues of trainers and coaches. Even the swimmers are mostly doing their own thing under a common umbrella. The exception is the cyclists - under David Brailsford there is a genuine coaching set up for the men's and women's teams with talented cyclists being identified, trained and literally every aspect of their lives, training, diets and bikes/equipment is looked at to see what can be improved. as Rothko says this philosophy - called marginal/incremental improvements suggests that if you improve every aspect by a small amount you have a considerable gain to the whole. So bikes are made lighter, riding positions are changed, the amount of rest and what the cyclists eat is monitored and so on.

    But Brailsford only has to get it right once or twice a year - the Track World Championships and then the Olympics and next year in February the next World Championships. For the younger/less experienced riders there are European Championships etc. Consequently there is a specific target to work to and everyone knows ahead of the competition where they have to peak and training can be planned around that. Footballers have to play in the league, in European club competitions and internationals and there is more at stake and more media exposure to boot.

    In the US you also have the moneyball philosophy which isn't so far away from Brailsford's theories. Simply you break everything down into stats, although there it's used to look for undervalued/underutilised players there are some similarities.

    The trick is to be open-minded enough to look and see what you can learn, adopt and adapt to another sport. Not everything is transferable, but that doesn't mean that everything has to be ignored. One as aspect would transfer to any sports environment and that's the use of sports psychologists. If you watched the cycling the British team had one talking to the competitors and he was considered one of the team. I just wonder how receptive British football teams would be to working on the mental conditioning of the players. We started this thread by making the observation that we blew it in another penalty knock out competition and many people can be forgiven for wondering why pro footballers get so nervous about kicking a static ball from a few yards at a wide target with only a goalkeeper to beat. Poor technique? Lack of practice? Or did Daniel sturridge just lose his bottle? Is that the sort of thing that a good sports psychologist could esasily solve?
  • Programme Directors appeared who managed sports as a whole, brought in the best coaches and experts be they British or not (the GB rowing coach is German for example). But this didn't happen overnight. What those programme directors added was vision.

    Good article and the above is the key point I believe. Money has not just been spent on the athletes themselves ... but on the backup, the infrastructure, the equipment, the coaching, etc.

    Chris Boardman made a very relevant point ... other countries ask why we are so successful in cycling ... as he said, it is not due to any one thing ... it is an mix of many improvements, part of a package, and small percentage increases for each factor adds up to an overall significant increase ... as he puts it, an accumulation of 'marginal gains'.

    Most of the money in football goes to players in wages and for that reason we will never achieve the heights we are attaining in sports such as cycling and rowing.

  • stonemuse said:


    Most of the money in football goes to players in wages and for that reason we will never achieve the heights we are attaining in sports such as cycling and rowing.

    Even though this statement is true, most of the money that the big clubs invest in player development (and there is a fair bit) is invested for the benefit of the club. Arsenal, for example, have many young players coming through their ranks that are not eligible to play for England. I suspect that the other teams also have a spattering of 'foreign' players in their youth academies.

    As I said earlier in the thread, the most wealthy entities in English football (the Premier League clubs) don't care what the nationalities of their players are, and as the are amongst the richest teams in the world. Thus they can afford to bring players in from other countries where their league teams can't compete in terms of financial benefits.

    I think it is no surprise that the Italians had international success during the period where their clubs were more wealthy and they had a cap on how many non Italian players they could have in their match day squads.

    Due to the Premier League's wealth I wouldn't be surprised to discover that we (England) have the (or one of the) fewest number of players playing in the top division of European football leagues.

    I do see the arguments for the other reasons for Team GB seeming to be outperforming the English National Football Team, but I still think it comes down to the relatives resources compared to other nations for both football and the 'minority' sports.

    We will, clearly, never know but I suspect that if a seriously wealthy club in England were to look to recruit English players and coach them from a young age in the same way that Barcelona do - and run the risk of having minimal success for a decade - they would find that they would have a successful team and so would the National side.
  • Very true KHA ... and this goes back to the original point ... we need 'programme directors' with vision ... but is anyone in football brave enough to make that move and run the risk of a 5-10 year hiatus? Probably not.
  • I think the key thing football can learn is simple. A willingness to change their approach.

    A willingness to accept that is is unacceptable for English or British players at the top level to be unable to use both feet to the same skill level

    A willingness to accept that blaming poor performance in penalty shootouts by saying 'they are a lottery' is unacceptable.

    A willingness to accept that having top players being unable to keep the ball for more than 4 or 5 passes before the ball goes out of play or to the opposition is unacceptable.

    The willingness of our fans to accept that a team playing the ball around and patiently waiting for an opening is actually a good thing.

    unfortunately as long as other countries continue to do that job for us with their own young players, and as long as our clubs are willing to pay for other countries to do that work for them then those changes will not take place.
  • Sitting down football?
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