Football Foundations; Why Kenya is not developing young players

At the 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year Awards Gala, FIFA sought to appreciate two up and coming footballers. In the two major youth tournaments organized by FIFA that year, these two players had emerged as the players of the tournament.

Argentina’s captain, Sergio Aguero, had been instrumental in leading his country to the FIFA U-20 World Cup triumph in Canada while Germany’s captain, Toni Kroos, was the standout player in Korea at the U-17 World Cup as his country finished third. Seven years later, at the Maracana Stadium in Brazil, these two players would face each other in a World Cup Final.

Rarely does that happen. It is one of the hardest things in football to determine the future quality of youth. Time changes current circumstances. Whereas a player may be judged on his potential right now, it is fairly difficult to be certain whether that potential will actualise.

Like everything else, getting recognition is hard; maintaining it even harder. Thus, as the KPL Awards rolled on a few weeks ago and Kennedy Owino was awarded the New Young Player of the Year for the 2014 KPL season, it got me thinking. Will this new found recognition be maintained?

The Promise of KPL Young Player of the Year

Just look at former Young Player of the Year recipients. The award came with the promise of a bright turn of events; of a new page turned. Instead, most have witnessed regress. That award has become the only highlight in a slippery sliding slope; the optimum level of a bell-shaped career graph.

Abbey Nattey, Winner of the KPL Young player of the year 2012. What happened? (image via www.michezoafrika.com)

Abbey Nattey, Winner of the KPL Young player of the year 2012. What happened? (image via www.michezoafrika.com)

Indeed, what happens to our young players? And how come we are not producing enough of them? Is it a problem of our decision makers? Do they make rash decisions in coming up with the award winner, preferring to award a one season wonder rather than a player showing consistent levels of progress?

Maybe it is. That is one of the theories flying around that those in charge of the awards do not do their best in giving out the award. It could be however – as stated earlier – that foresight is not an advantage anyone has.

But in as much as we cannot predict the future, there is a manner to which Aguero and Kroos had a potential at an early age that has and is materialising. The same could be said of the recipients of the Young Player of the Year Award at the FIFA World Cup. Even glancing at the list of PFA Young Player of the Year winners and even though there is a mixture of players who maximised their talents and others who fizzled out, the former, however, outnumbers the latter.

Therefore, should the criteria – if any does exist – for awarding the Kenyan League’s young player be revised?

Youth Coaching

There is however a deeper issue. In as much as there could be a flaw in who gets the award, there also seems to be a fault in the education that young footballers in Kenya undergo.

Football is a sport but no matter how much it is steeped in fantasy, it is not removed from the realities of life. Nothing in life is automatic. Hard work must be put in.

It could be that once a young player achieves the award, the hard work needed to perform at an escalated level cannot be reached. Increased scrutiny and at times, a move to a higher level of football needs a change in levels of intensity and attitude. That boils down to how young players are coached.

Indeed, there seems to be a sense of a win at all costs mentality – and that, at youth level at least is the wrong mentality. It among other things leads to discouragement of footballers who could be average but with the potential to become better. Only the talented come through.

Even so, there is a sense that the talented players may not be coached so as to encourage their other abilities, or to develop them into all round players. There is a story of how Lionel Messi’s youth coach stopped rewarding him for the goals that he scored with his left foot and told him to focus on scoring with his right foot. Once Messi could score equally as many goals with his right foot as with his left foot, Messi was told that he could now only get a reward if he scored with his head.

This does not mean that Messi became the best header of the ball, or the best user of his weaker foot. But one of his very few headed goals for Barcelona came in a Champions League Final. If his youth coach had not encouraged heading, maybe Edwin Van Der Sar would have had a chance of saving that header.

The Bad Lessons taught to Young footballers

I was once a linesman at what was supposed to be an Under-13 tournament. I say ‘what was supposed to be’ because a majority of teams turned up with tall muscular players, somewhere between the ages of 15 and 17, and claimed that they were 12. Excuses varied from good diet to lost birth certificates.

This was the first bad lesson. That one can do anything and get away with it, because ‘this world is so cruel that deceit is the only way to get to the top.’ That honesty is not a policy; considered at worst naivety and at best stupidity.

The other thing was the barrage of insults levied against players so young. I wondered how the players felt. I would get my response. In one game, a goalkeeper took his goal kick and the ball landed to his striker who was in an offside position. I did not raise my flag.

In a desperate attempt to save the situation, a defender slid in from behind and hauled the striker down in the box. This time, I raised my flag to indicate a penalty, but I did not need to. The referee had already blown his whistle and was pointing to the spot.

All this time, the coaches of the team which was on the receiving end of the penalty were in my face, insulting me for having not raised my flag for offside. Why had I not raised my flag? Of course, one cannot be offside from a goal kick!

I was of course hurt, by the insults levied against me, and I wondered how it must be whenever the young players received this same kind of insults on each occasion they misplaced a pass or failed to control the ball.

It also appalled me that the coaches did not understand the offside rule in relation to goal kicks. Not only were the coaches rude and instilling fear into the young players, they also did not fully grasp the rules of the game they were teaching.

These are certainly not conducive conditions for development of young players. They need encouragement at that early age. They need to learn that if I misplace a pass, or make a wrong decision, they will have the freedom to rectify that mistake later. Nothing comforts more in times of mistake than encouragement. Nothing teaches more than the opportunity of a second chance.

Talented players lavished with praise

Speaking of second chances, it was painful to see young players not being given the opportunity merely because in the mind of the coach, they would mess up and not make the team win. Graham Hunter’s book on Barcelona states that at La Masia at youth level, everybody gets a chance to play regardless of skill level.

At the same time, there was a general trend of lavishing praise on the individually talented players. Not that this is malum in se. Credit should be given where it is due. But when that praise extends to an extent that the player cannot be reprimanded for his faults, it becomes a paralytic.

It increases the player’s individuality over the team ethic. It also increases the win at ball costs mentality and dependency. Players who cannot carry the team in the same manner become subservient and endowed with an inferiority complex.

What was wrong was that these players were most of the time the older ones – the ones against whom nobody else in the team could raise their voice against. That these players are not developed also seems to be the reason why at an advanced age, and an elevated level, they fail to adapt.

Getting used to praise is detrimental. It does not inculcate a work ethic in a player. Thus when the time reaches that they have to work harder, they cannot. Complacency creeps in. They suffer from the prodigy complex – praised at such an early stage, they come to rely on their talent and forget that hard work beats talent when talent stops working.

Form may be temporary and class permanent. But permanence of class is only maintained by hard work. In any case, consistency of form accompanying class sees one reach greatness level.

It could be that what I observed then was one event and as such taken as coincidence. But it is something observed by various others and with various degrees of consistency that it fails to be mere happenstance. The question of why Kenya is not developing young players should thus become a question of how we are coaching young players. Foundations are key, and even more so at such early stages.

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Mike Njoroge is a regular contributor of Superfoota and writes his own blog,  FutbolTriangle. He has also been published by Here Is the City, Beyond the Ninety Minutes and kandanda.co.ke. You can follow him on Twitter @MikeNjoro

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