Monday, July 15, 2024

The obsession with players’ age is misdirected

So the national team bombs out of every competition and the knives come out. Among some of the reactionary views out there is one that says the national team should be dismantled and a new one comprising under-23 year olds assembled, baby-with-bathwater-like. The reality of how absolutely mediocre we are as a footballing nation seems to surprise most people, and emotional reactions are somewhat the order of the day even from so-called experts of the game.

If we agree that our current generation of players are not at a good enough competitive level internationally, how is dismantling the national team by itself going to address this weakness? And suggesting that current under-23’s would represent a good starting point for future competitiveness goes further to expose a grave misunderstanding of player development which sadly continues to guide the thinking even among our leadership. This point has probably been flogged to death previously but the reality is that by current standards, an 18-year old footballer should have the full range of skills needed to play at the highest level, with the rest down to the player’s own physical development, mentality and football intelligence.

This then makes it critical that before a player is out of their teen years, they should already show strong technical and tactical qualities to suggest that they are future national team players. It also means that in these formative years a great deal of high quality specific work must be done on these players and nothing left to chance as they will never again be more open to learning the same concepts in the future, e.g. when they are playing competitively or for professional sides. The reality though is quite the opposite: practically no coaching happens between the ages 6-18 years, and boys (and girls) walk out of the school system to join (competitive) amateur or Premier League clubs where there is absolutely no development aspect.

To make up for a poor development base the poor kids are subjected to gruelling fitness regimes that in effect limit their technical application while doing nothing to improve their game intelligence. The fact that the players’ physicality becomes the overriding criterion of quality means that the smaller or late-maturing ones find it hard to break into the first team regardless of talent, only to be re-discovered in their mid-20’s or later, at which point the flaws in their game are impossible to deal with, despite their obvious talent. So it makes no difference how young or talented our players are, the simple fact that they have a weak development base limits how far they can go in the game, and talking about an Under 23 side makes no sense when you consider all the above factors. In fact our obsession with the age of players is one of the most puzzling oddities of our general approach to sport: we are very sensitive to older players being part of our national teams yet we don’t pay enough attention to development of young players.

A living example is how some clubs in the Gaborone Region have organised a development league that no one has any time for, including the Botswana Football Association, only showing up on prize-giving days to take credit. Another one of our obsessions is the idea of an Under-23 national team, something that is unheard of in the developed football world, but clearly an African thing. What is the value of having a national team at an age where absolutely no development takes place? If our players at that age are not good enough to get into the senior national team, it tells us all we need to know about the state of our football. If this obsession with age meant that we agitated for the formation of under-21, -17, -15 and -13 national teams (and regional leagues) it would be well-founded as it would suggest an understanding of what it is that we need.

Anything in that direction would also be progress as it would inevitably lead to the formation of structures where real development would take place. Instead of holding the BFA to account for the glaring weaknesses in our system, we instead find cheap scapegoats in the form of older players or the coach, all of which are part of the same dysfunctional system which continues to deliver nothing worth celebrating. To put a spin on the question currently being asked about the coach, if we dismantle the national team now (i.e. get rid of the older players) who do we replace them with? The sad reality is we need these older players for, among others: their experience, the fact that we have no one to replace them with, and because they represent what we need to improve on.

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