Taking Football to the Streets — Part I

Taking Football To The Streets
Part One
In a stunning follow-up to his acclaimed 10,000 Touches article, Jonathan Townsend looks at taking the game back to the streets and interviews freestyle football legend, Edward Van Gils.

By Jonathan Townsend | 3 March 2014
A heavy rain and the repeated chops, turns, and drags of my feet turned the vibrant green pitch into a pockmarked mud plot of land as I counted the penultimate touches of the 10,000 touch workout I wrote about previously. Looking at my watch, I scoffed at the time. I was at a park three miles away from home and knew I was late for dinner. In fact, looking back, at 14 years of age, I was probably flirting with being late for a lot of things including my own development as a player.

I brought back a wealth of cultural and footballing knowledge after my stint in Holland and I did my best to continue the good habits I was spoiled with overseas; promising myself that I’d be the primary person responsible for my development. Back then, over a decade ago at the time of this writing, not many young players were armed with the wherewithal to hold themselves accountable for their own success or lack thereof. Only a few, the crème de la crème, ever really “make it” in football.

Today, it seems the number of young players who hold themselves responsible for their own success or demise nears a negative integer value. It’s almost non-existent. Back home, as I reflected on my experience some of the most barefaced truths about my story from that summer in Holland came to fruition:

1. Young players not only need great coaches, they need coaches who’d coach for free if it meant developing good players

2. I had no chance of playing professionally – but it didn’t matter, I wanted to improve and continue to play as long and far as I could

3. Today’s player has too many distractions and is pulled in too many different directions within the sport and within the realm of athletics. Players need to find their own way with positive guidance, not be force fed instruction by overzealous parents and paid club coaches who are too results-driven to foster maturity and enjoyment for the players

4. Improvement necessitates sacrificing, embracing and adopting what works in other parts of the world

5. I needed to investigate the game at the level where most kids learn and still play: the street football scene. In doing so, I interviewed two prominent players, Edward Van Gils from Holland and John Farnworth from England to learn about their journeys and experiences and to show the transparency that extends between two great footballing nations.

Did every player I saw on training pitch at Hengelo make it to the professional level? Most certainly not. But therein is perhaps the biggest problem: unless there’s a pot of gold (guaranteed scholarships, a chance to play professional football) at the end of the rainbow, young players and misguided coaches don’t address the deficiencies of a broken system.

As I read the numerous emails and comments regarding the importance of the vaunted 10,000 touches I focused on in the article, the questions and criticisms intrigued me. People asked for the specific workout, the time of day one could accomplish such a feat, how many years they would have to perform the touches, and if I had any peer reviewed scientific sporting journals to back up “the claim” that 10,000 touches a day would take a player to “another level”.

Admittedly, I’ve spent many hours in my office at home staring at the blinking curser on the blank computer screen thinking about how to respond with my two Labrador retrievers at my feet staring at me with innocent looks of confusion. I knew I’d struck a chord in the football world, which was good. But on the other hand, people were looking for definitive solutions –ones they hoped came in a shiny package with a pretty bow.

All jokes aside, the answers are many, but the ethos of the topic is that success must be redefined. Surely, the Dutch method of player development is one of a select few around the world with a proven track record of success.

When I decided to tell my story about my development and how I challenged myself to get 10,000 touches a day, I merely aimed to shed light on an aspect of the modern game today’s young players aren’t equipped with – free play and development within their communities away from their organized teams. By the time I learned the importance of ball mastery and technique, I was 14 years-old. But, what that particular practice represented was a culmination of tried and tested applications I embraced and added to my repertoire of skills and training methods on my own.

Like many kids, I played organized football from the start. At four years-old, I had a team, in a league, and for some reason, wins and losses mattered. However, I perfected many aspects of my game far away from the lush grass pitches, the adoring eyes of my parents, and the pressures associated with winning – all through street football. Looking back, there was nothing intricate about kicking a football around on the pavement by myself or with local players; it just felt free.

Growing up with a plethora of football experiences, I can recall having the most fun playing street football – inventing new moves, enjoying the solitude, racing the setting sun to get home for dinner having learned a new trick. In street football, I found a burgeoning love for the game that, in my opinion, is often removed by an obsessed culture of overly-organized teams, an idiotic emphasis on “winning”, overreacting coaches, and overreaching parents.

My self-sacrificing parents poured every ounce and penny into trips abroad that made me appreciate and develop as a footballer. But a summer in Holland taught me quite a bit more about the sport I loved. In Holland, I learned the importance of regimented training, but I also learned to rediscover the fun of playing street football. I played every day. Rain or shine. Street football led to creative football. It led me to develop a competitive side of my game that no coach could instill.

When I returned home, I continued to play street football. One rainy afternoon, a friend and I saw one of the famed early Nike Freestyle campaign commercials and we immediately took to his computer to log on – at dial-up speeds, mind you – to websites hoping to find videos of ‘freestyle’ footballers. These players were expressing themselves in ways I’d never seen before.

Some of it was purely exhibitionist, but most of it was creative beyond imagination. Isn’t that what football is about, enjoyment and creativity? The first freestyle player I ever discovered was a Dutch player named Edward Van Gils.

Van Gils is perhaps, the player I identify with the most since his moves and videos seemed to permeate on the results pages of the internet search engines of the early 2000’s. What I saw in Edward’s play was the aesthetic display of what football should be for a young player – fun.

The fluidity, the speed of his technique and touches (more on that later), and the creative genius of his skills gave me something to aspire to emulate. Did watching Edward Van Gils lead me to play professionally? Nope. And that was never the point, nor should it be. But, watching that kind of football made me smile – and that was something organized football had beaten out of me at a young age.

As the years passed, I enjoyed some success in the sport. I played collegiately, met some great people in through the sport and continue to play in competitive men’s leagues. It’s safe to say my obsession with the game has only grown, so I decided to contact Edward Van Gils and John Farnworth and ask them about their journeys and development. As ambassadors of the sport my aim was to gain insight and pay homage to Edward and John and the other Freestyle/street footballers who, in many respects, are perhaps the best teachers of the game.

In their narrative and responses, I found an affirmation and connection with my own experiences in Europe, especially in Holland in relation to the importance of consistent repetition (getting thousands of supplemental touches), free play, dedication, and persistence on account of the player.

Interview with Edward Van Gils

How did you start playing football?

Like any other Dutch kid, you grab a ball and play outside for hours just having fun until you’re like 5 or 6 years old. Then, you join a club which competes every weekend and you practice during the week.

Did you ever dream of playing professional football? If so, do you have a story about what happened that lead you to be the world’s best freestyle footballers?

Well to be honest, not really, it was my passion and my own world where I felt comfortable like nowhere else. So, I didn’t care what happened, I just wanted to play 24/7. It didn’t matter to me at what level or if I would become pro or not. And I also think that helped me to develop to who I am today – no pressure, just pure football.

In my opinion, success comes from passion and hard work, not mental pressure from a parent or a coach (or yourself) who pushes you at a young age. Just have fun. When you’re happy, you accomplish great things in life! Besides that, you also need discipline for yourself [to play] not just because someone tells you to.

As a young player, how many touches did you get a day with the ball? How many hours did you practice to develop your skills?

Wow, I don’t know. We played when school was out until our mom came to the court angrily because the food was getting cold (no joke). After that, we played again until the sun went down. Back then, parents weren’t that paranoid thinking, “Oh, is my kid OK?”

What is your goal as a freestyle footballer? Do you want to see this side of the game grow more? Or, do you like the “underground” (hidden) aspect of the game?

My goal? To inspire kids, to enthuse kids to play, and most important to show the world my art and while I’m playing, forget every problem in the world because that’s my world – my happy place. Do I want to see it grow? Street football is the biggest sport in the world. Whoever picks up a ball and goes outside is a street football player. Their level doesn’t count in street football, it’s just fun and it’s to improve yourself.

But I would like 11-a-side coaches to take it more serious. Street skills might be 60 percent useless for 11-a-side, but that 40 percent that you can use is a lot my friend! In my opinion, skills should be a tool when you have solution to get out of any situation on the pitch that will make a player more confident, right?

A confident player (person) is a better player (person) because having faith in what you do makes you accomplish just that extra bit in life and sport. Fear will hold you back! Plus, what supporter doesn’t want to see some nice, functional skills? [All this produces] better players, brings more fans, more sponsors, more money which a club can invest in good players or schooling. It’s a win/win situation (laughs).

I feel this type of football, which requires an exceptional level of skill, is not appreciated as much as the mainstream game. Do you agree? Why or why not?

I do agree. Creative people are mostly (not all the time, like Cristiano and Messi) more difficult people because they have ideas of their own and can be less disciplined than the “normal” people. Take a look at Ronaldinho, Zlatan, or Maradona, not every coach is willing to put time and effort into these players because they are the boss and they say you need to do what they tell you to do. So, they get less-talented players who can do less and have less talent, but listen to and execute whatever a coach says, which is also a talent!

But what if a coach can take his time and get a creative player to execute plans (this takes more time and effort) then you get the Messi’s of the world. But because of pressure, media, and sponsors, coaches don’t get or take the time to work with difficult players, or they just don’t know how to deal with them.

Skillful players are mostly street players because the play from an early age on the streets because they love it! Plus, most of these players don’t have money for Xboxes and Playstations, so basically street football is the only way to escape reality and be happy. These are kids that aren’t as easy to coach because they come from a totally different world that needs time and understanding and good guidance.

Maybe clubs or managers should take professional street players to work with those kids together with an 11-a-side player because we understand the kids; we speak their language and they respect us because they can identify themselves with us. It’s a long story, but this is my frustration, man! There are too many talented players who don’t get a chance because they are considered “difficult”. This is a waste of players, my friend!

What can you tell people about yourself? Describe yourself aside from football so I can help build context to who you are as a player and freestyle football icon.

Ha! That’s hard. I don’t like to talk about myself in that way. I just wish for people to check me out and form their own opinions. Then that makes me do the right things in life. I want to be an inspiration to kids who are in the situation I was in and let them know if you work hard from passion not pressure, if you want to accomplish something and you are willing to do anything for it – you can do everything you want in life.

Who and what influenced you to continue to play football and become the world’s best freestyle footballer? Do you have any favorite players or teams? Unique experiences that you would like share?

Love for the game, nothing more, and nothing less. I have many unique experiences, my friend, honestly, I can write a book! And maybe I will some day!

What is your favorite place to perform freestyle football? Do you feel Holland has the best freestyle footballers?

There’s no place like home. I feel happy in Amsterdam, and yes I’m sure Amsterdam has the best players. We beat any country out there! You can profile yourself on the internet but put your money where your mouth is, no other street team at the moment can beat the Amsterdam teams (not talking about Freestyle juggling).

We’ve been around the world and seen so many players and they are very good players, don’t get me wrong. But we created a new way of playing in the late-nineties and the rest of the world is picking it up since when, maybe ten years now? Because of YouTube, these players aren’t as creative anymore because they can just copy [a move] and paste it, but that has a downside.

Anyone can copy a trick and do it, but you have to know how when and where to do the move on the pitch – so don’t just do a trick because it looks fancy. Every trick has a purpose! But I’m sure the next generation will create a unique style and some other country will take over from Holland. Because street football is universal, it will move from country to country. Before Amsterdam, it was Brazil. Who’s next? I don’t know yet, but I’ll let you know.

Do you have any Freestyle footballer friends that have helped you develop as a player?

Yes, of course, even today I get inspired from the little kid who’s playing outside. I see his passion and that makes me go back to what I experienced and who I was when I was younger. When you get older, you get lazy, and getting lazy makes you get older! Young kids who develop crazy tricks make me want to beat them, so I also think about something else something even better. My friends keep me sharp; my competition keeps me on my toes.

My little brother, Issy “Hitman” Hamdoaui, is my biggest inspiration because I’ve never been as good as him and I’m competitive and I still want to beat him, so I stay on top of my game invent new moves because I can’t stand it losing. Besides him, any player on the planet helps me to become who I am.

What advice would you give young kids who want to become Freestyle footballers or just get better at football in general?

Don’t have too many expectations; just have fun until you need to be serious! Street football expectations give you unnecessary pressure. Just dream about it and let that passion and that love for the game becomes your drive to be the best you can be.

And for [any] move, try to understand the meaning behind the tricks you see and use them functionally. You should either be able to score, pass or have created space for yourself or a teammate, otherwise you just wasted a good trick!

By Jonathan Townsend.
Follow Jon on Twitter @jon_townsend3

The League of Shadows

The League of Shadows
By: Jon Townsend

Since its inception at the start of 1992-93 season, the Premier League has redefined the global branding of football. In a league known for its pace, power and competitiveness, the game has thrived with higher attendance figures, television monies and a massive injection of foreign finances and talent. The Premier League is, without a doubt, the most popular league in the world. The players gracing the pitches of the England’s top flight have both captivated global audiences and catapulted the league to the forefront of the modern sport’s market. In essence, the Premier League is a machination of ruthless beauty designed to showcase a league’s universal reach and influence, and it has become the juggernaut in the system for which it was designed.

The unveiling of the 2013 FIFPro World XI revealed more than the names of the world’s “best” players. None of the players on the list ply their trade in the world’s most popular league. Surely, this omission isn’t indicative of a possible lack of talent on display in England’s top flight, is it? It would be less than pragmatic to believe this, like many of FIFA’s competitions, is anything other than a popularity contest. The nominations, whether they’re derived from the players themselves or from one of FIFA’s bureaucratic selection committees, reveal the power of perception spliced with the voting masses’ conviction to rage against the machine that is the Premier League.

Many will hang themselves on the simple and elementary argument that the Premier League has world class players and teams. Of course it does, but the argument itself is mere conversation fodder in comparison to the reality that the Premier League is the Frankenstein nobody wants to tangle with or recognize in these types of competitions. The subjectivity flowing through the veins of such recognition-based ballets and galas suggests that the Premier League is too powerful for its own players to gain global acclaim. In comparison to La Liga, Ligue 1, or the Bundesliga, the Premier League makes it nearly impossible for the massive separation in the standings one sees in the aforementioned leagues. This fact alone makes the Premier League entertaining; but does entertainment equate to quality?

One aspect that the Premier League holds over most other leagues is the competitive nature of the league in a holistic sense. Many seasons find little separating the teams in terms of goal and point totals in sections of the table. The top four or five teams usually battle until the final weeks or day of the season while the relegation battle is both epic and powerful in its own intensity. Historically, in La Liga, Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga, the top teams tend to run away with the league creating a viable and visible platform for individual stardom to thrive. In those leagues, star power is more noticeable and praised whereas in the Premier League, the proclivity for the David’s to slay the Goliath’s is on display almost weekly. In European football, Premier League teams compete and win competitions with some degree of regularity.

Competitions such as the FIFA Ballon d’Or and the FIFPro World XI have merit and the Premier League should have some representation on the ballots if the league really is as good as advertised. The self-aware football-loving public can only imagine the type of hell prolific strikers like Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero would presently unleash on defenses in La Liga, Ligue 1, or the Bundesliga. Sergio Aguero, for instance, bagged 74 goals for Atletico Madrid in 175 appearances while currently sitting on 48 goals in 79 appearances with Manchester City—perhaps suggesting he’s more clinical in a tougher league defensively. Each league has its loyal servants, and it’s possible the Premier League’s soldiers like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Ryan Giggs might have found more individual success playing abroad, it doesn’t detract from their quality as players and perhaps, their loyalty to the Premier League is a testament to its strength.

The world of football wants to see stars and it wants to see them shine brightly. In the Premier League, the talent is on display and the flair is there—but the focus is on the club as a collective. Those shining too brightly often leave for the Premier League (Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Arjen Robben, and Gareth Bale to name a few). Premier league players must be willing to bleed for their club and the league thrives off the numerous battles waged on the landscape of the Premier League table. In years where a clear frontrunner takes off with the league, the passion still exists and attention turns to the battle for European football qualification and of course, relegation. These elements of the Premier League are evident in all of Europe’s top leagues; the difference is those leagues are dominated by one or two teams—two teams that the league’s global image and vitality relies on. When Barcelona or Real Madrid loses to a smaller team in Spain, its bad business for La Liga. The same might be true for the Bundesliga and Bayern Munich, which is rightly considered to be one of the world’s best clubs.

For all its power, pace and its high entertainment value, the Premier League is the MMA octagon of football. It’s a league full of prizefighters, skilled tacticians, foreign flair, homegrown grit and loyalty—and they’re all battling at full speed week-in and week-out. To judge the quality of the league and the players populating it based on competitions like the Ballon d’Or (which was rightly awarded to Cristiano Ronaldo) or the FIFPro World XI is a fool’s game. These competitions are solely about individual achievement in the eyes of a biased group of voters. The Premier League powerhouse places emphasis on club success before that of individual players. There’s something remarkably powerful with La Liga pitting Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi—two of the most popular footballers on the planet—against one another. But that’s the ticket, those players are marketable as individuals on a level unseen in the Premier League.

Perhaps the Premier League garners more holistic power and popularity than Europe’s other elite leagues, but its focus on club success over individual player success is evident. When a club’s marquee signing leaves for another Premier League side, echoes of, “No one is bigger than the club,” are muttered into pint glasses and press conference microphones alike because, in England’s top league, it’s true. Unique elements seen globally such as the jostling for league position, the intensity of each derby, and effort each team displays, regardless of league standing, suggest that the Premier League faithful won’t admit they pay attention to competitions where players clad in fancy tuxedos partake in a popularity contest current Premiership players have no chance of winning. The biggest league in the world might be shrouded in shadow—but in terms of the league’s branding and marketing potential, the Premier League is the bright-shining signaling buoy used to guide other leagues daring to navigate the dangerous waters of world football.

10,000 Touches

In the summer of 2001, I was fortunate enough to train in Holland for close to 16 weeks, playing with a local team from Enschede in friendlies and tournaments. I saw how young Dutch players trained, prepared and learned the game.

One morning, after playing a few hours of street football, I rode my bike to FC Twente’s brand new training ground in Hengelo hoping to see the first team train. What I found was the club’s youngsters, aged eight or nine, assembling on a small pitch just outside the main training fences corralled by a team of coaches all holding clicking hand counters.

Each player had a ball and assembled into groups of six and, after hearing instructions, the whistle blew. The entire field of players began a series of ball touches in unison while the crew of coaches clicked away with the counters. It didn’t take me long to figure out what was happening; these players worked through rehearsed ball movements in sets of 100-200 repetitions, at match speed.

After rounds of toe-touches, Cruyff turns, drag-backs, pirouettes, juggles, dribbles, or paired one-touch passing the players rested, rotated to a different station, and began another set targeting a different skill. Admittedly, I was surprised at the smooth movements on display.

I watched for a few minutes, unknowingly inching my way closer before one of the coaches made eye-contact with me. He jogged over and spoke to me in Dutch. Gathering my awkward stammering and shy disposition, the young coach deduced I didn’t speak Dutch, so in near-perfect English, he asked, “You want to play? You want to join today? We just started.”

To my astonishment, I agreed, after all, I rode 11 kilometers to watch a training session so the invitation to participate was exciting. An older, more experienced coach shook my hand and, placing a ball at my feet said, “Hup, you start. Stoppen, you stop. Good?” I nodded. Nothing complicated, nothing elaborate. Each movement was modelled by one of the coaches before we commenced the training session. More importantly, each drill was a progression from the previous basic exercise into a more advanced movement.

Since I started after the group, I continued to train with a coach as the players moved to another field to play the older team – players my age. After 70 minutes, I was sore, I was tired, but most of all, I was exposed. This wasn’t a fitness-focused session either, I’d just never trained so rigorously and exclusively on fundamental movements.

My technique wasn’t as polished as some of the younger players. The coach told me I had completed a 10,000 touch workout and that each of his young players did it once a day, at least six days a week, and I should do the same. He informed me they’d complete a variation of that workout daily, usually at home, and every player knew its necessity. He equated the touches with putting money in a piggybank. A fitting analogy.

My narrative aside, in the footballing world it’s evident a visible gap exists between countries taking pride in developing talent and those content just to qualify for a tournament or be on the same pitch with the world’s best. The countries developing great players have figured out a culture-centered and formulaic way to produce the talent in abundance filling their club system (all levels) and national side teamsheets.

The rest of the world, meanwhile, must unlock the secrets of building not only talented individuals, but of a talented and capable generation of players. The approach is a game of numbers. Increasing the number of functional reps each day builds a stronger foundation for more players to improve. The higher the level of play (quality) plus the higher the competition and competency (quantity) equals a better end product, regardless of level (professional, amateur, etc).

Before we delve into the theory behind the number made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Outliers, let’s examine why there’s a gap in youth development. Countries that plateau in developing talent certainly harbour high aspirations for their players. Unfortunately, they also concede inadequate execution committed to developing world-class talent.

These countries need to identify exactly what ‘world-class talent’ looks like before initiating quick fixes. For example, in the US there exists a stale rhetoric rife with claims the USSF dutifully follows the same methods of football’s elite up until recently – and it may take another generation of players to reap these benefits.

Football’s world powers, regardless of geography, breed players and fans working to create distinctively national styles of football. For these countries, the sport is such a part of life that it’s closely entwined with the larger political and social fabric of a culture. There, young players don’t look at football as a chore or extracurricular activity.

It has very little to do with individual pride either; every player want to improve, they just don’t know how. For countries lacking success on the world stage, this disconnection between a country’s culture and its football might be where the fracture lies. The how of anything is resolved when you identify the why.

As with any functioning system, there must be a process. A measureable input that yields a predictable output. Gladwell’s book Outliers suggests that, in addition to peripheral factors like luck and random chance, mastery of a specific skill takes no fewer than 10,000 hours of focused practice and performance. His research reinforces the validity of case studies lodged heavily in the theoretic, and it’s quite impressive to say the least.

But in football, 10,000 hours of application doesn’t really guarantee mastery; so how about 10,000 touches a day on the ball? Admittedly, there are countless factors at play regarding whether a player becomes a professional. But what if the goal is to produce capable footballers at not only the pro level, but at all levels?

One example is the approach I experienced on the training ground in Hengelo. Holland consistently produces technically proficient players. These players are products of a culture valuing successful attention to detail concerning youth development and scouting systems feeding the larger clubs. Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, Sparta Rotterdam and Feyenoord football mills continually churn out talented players (output).

Perhaps Rinus Michels’s Total Football combined with the famed Coerver method has paid dividends. In these systems, ball mastery is not only an expectation, but a demand as it allows players to dynamically affect a match from a young age, presumably producing happy players.

The Coerver Method is a coaching platform steeped in both pyramidal and pedagogical practices developed by ‘The Albert Einstein of Football’, Wiel Coerver. The moniker is well-deserved as development under this system requires progression through a structured process, beginning with the basics of ball mastery, footwork, group tactics, passing and receiving, and eventually moving towards individual moves and clinical finishing.

The repetition leads to habitual patterns of play and techniques to a point where complexities become simple. Players integrating supplemental Coerver methods can easily get 10,000 touches a day. And this method is no longer exclusive to the Dutch style (total football). Styles in Spain (tiki-taka), Italy (catenaccio), France (carré magique) and Germany (gegenpressing) all utilized tactics requiring technically sound players with the ability to interchange positions on the pitch; a skill acquired through relentless repetition.

In South America, football has been a fundamental piece of culture ever since its introduction to the continent. As a result, the blend of football with culture has resulted in periods of domination by South American players and nations. Three South American nations have won half of the 19 World Cup titles.

South America has also produced arguably two of the most influential and talented players of all time in Pele and Maradona. Worldwide, fans are captivated by the creativity, flow, flair and ‘completeness’ of both the Brazilian Seleção and Argentina’s Albicelestes. In these cultures and systems, players learn to maximize their effectiveness through rigid competition both at the club level and territorially in local games. The combination of futsal and street football stresses good technique and unrivaled creativity. Players are apt to get 10,000 touches a day.

Of course, these objective methods exist in the subjective world of football. One can look at the fact Holland has never won a World Cup and other nations have shown they can beat the Brazil’s and Argentina’s. One can also look at the Dutch influence on Spanish football’s tiki-taka stressing mastery levels of passing, receiving, dribbling and finishing, and contend that Spain defeated Holland in the 2010 World Cup Final using Dutch-inspired methods.

For all the dialogue about producing better players in the US, England, or anywhere really, the approach needs systematic re-evaluation. Producing the next Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi is unlikely, let alone producing a generation of them. But looking at the discrepancies of players from countries hovering just above average at best, grooming players to strive for measurable development is essential.

Proactive social experiments utilize metrics and data to reinforce theoretical claims. At the basic mathematical level, an average player can start working their way up to 10,000 touches and ideally, amass between 60,000-70,000 ‘extra’ touches a week. Over the course of a year that number equals 3,640,000 additional touches on the ball.

But what is the takeaway? Is this approach just another example of over-emphasizing the use of statistics and figures in the organic game of football? And even if a player doesn’t reach 10,000 but only gets 1,000, the figure is somewhat arbitrary.

Ultimately, a country’s football federation should identify what the ultimate end goal is before drawing any conclusions. Is it winning a World Cup? Many World Cups? Developing a strong domestic league showcasing and retaining domestic talent? Very few players will reach the highest level, but the elite players are always going to be the top players. The goal might be to raise the bar for all players. The system isn’t perfect; players will still have a poor first touch, deliver an errant pass and will still duff a shot, but players must see the benefit of getting 10,000 touches a day with a football.

The current generation of YouTube-addicted young people primarily watching fancy individual moves confirms a large percentage of players aspire to be exhibitionists rather than functional footballers. Undoubtedly, they’d be well-served to enrich their improvement by structured repetition, by any means necessary.

A player doesn’t need a coach to complete 10,000 touches a day, which is part of the problem. Young players assume they need constant guidance and supervision and won’t train otherwise, which is, again, a cultural issue rampant with reward-seeking and needing players.

Improvement occurs with correctly and consistently implemented fundamentals. The players at La Masia, Clairefontaine, La Fábrica, De Toekomst, Carrington and other academies understand the value of supplemental training, but most of those players accumulated thousands of extra touches prior to their acceptance in the academy. In fact, that may be why many of them were accepted in the first place. They separated themselves from the pack on their own. Coaches know those players put themselves ahead of the curve.

It’s easy to side with the quality over quantity argument, but the best players in the world didn’t take the chance. No, they played the numbers game. Perhaps 10,000 touches a day is like money in a piggybank – a tangible investment. The method is subjective, but there’s truth to the saying, “The more you learn the more you find you don’t know.”

By Jonathan Townsend.

Follow me on Twitter @jon_townsend3


Divers Anonymous

Divers Anonymous

By: Jon Townsend


Pardon the pun, but diving is an issue that needs to be tackled with the tenacity of a Billy Bremner chomp to the ankles and the severity of a Roy Keane lunge at the kneecaps. Surely, I jest, but hopefully you’ll get the point. Every football fan experiences the symptomatic effects of simulation—the seething anger escaping through clenched teeth and the increased heart rate an opposing team’s player triggers when they dive regardless of whether the referee takes the bait. Everyone sees the transgression. The old guard of football—comprised of former players and aging supporters must wonder where their beloved game has disappeared to these days.

Simulation has created a generation of defenders who flop on the ball when a striker pressures them from behind, strikers who look to fall at the slightest contact in or around the penalty area, and midfielders who’ve mastered the art of falling in the most congested areas of the pitch. The myriad offenses rain down controversy on referees and players alike with the omnipresent eyes of the world take their own dive into the world of controversy. Welcome to Planet Football.

The consistent element of diving, in modern football, is nearly every team has players guilty of the offense; predictably causing the condemning cynics to judge when other team’s players succumb to the sniper hidden in the floodlights’ deadly accurate shot while hiding their own blushes if diving proves to benefit their beloved club or country. Scores of young players, many of whom endeavored to emulate the skill yesterday’s great, ‘honest’ players displayed on the pitch now understand diving is a skill they’ll need in their repertoire if they want to play like football’s current stars. Such is the world of contentious football.

And isn’t that the beautiful ugliness of modern football? Diving is the double-edged sword the modern day supporter undoubtedly falls on. The ugly wave of hypocrisy washes over every football fan and the topic of diving is seldom more evident than it is presently. This summer, the world’s footballing elite will commence battle on the pitches of Brazil showcasing their own unique and beautiful style of football—and dark art of deception.

Perhaps what is most unsettling about diving is it’s an art form requiring an a rehearsed set of theatrical skills only seen onstage by paid and trained actors is played out (another pun, no apology) on football pitches by, well, paid and trained actors. Sitting in a pub with fans who’ve seen, lived and breathed the sport for over five decades, one can learn quite a lot about the evolution of football from the post-War era to the modern, money-infused version of the game worshipped the world over. They’ll tell you back then, players chomped at one another with the intensity of raging pitbull terriers frothing at the mouth to win and grind out a full-hearted effort worthy of merits regardless of outcome. The older fans will tell age-old tales of the epic clashes of football’s hard men against the mercurial talents coming through the ranks and across the borders. The battles pitted shin against shin, elbow against solar plexus, and forehead versus forehead. Blood was spilled—mixing well with the chewed up, pockmarked pitches of the time.

Any cognizant follower of the game knows that diving has always been there—in the referee’s periphery—enabling matches to be won and lost with well-rehearsed theatrics. Recently, simulation has shown its self-immolating side with a slew of non-calls that players like Luis Suarez, Ashley Young, Oscar, Ramires and Danny Welbeck have earned by letting their respective cunning con artist reputations precede them.

There was a time when “only foreigners” were guilty of simulation in the Premier League. As with all successful trends, diving has become so common and worthwhile for players that it has Premier League managers wearing two-faced masks, vehemently defending their own players whilst publicly condemning the opposition’s players in the same breath. This cyclical practice is akin to the pot calling the kettle black.

At the moment, it’s clear that diving is part of the game. But, does the global football community need accept this blight on the game? The better question ought to be, is diving a blight on the game? After all, it adds a palpable intrigue and a human element to a sport in a universe among others subject to the painful over-analyzing of in-game incidents disrupting the flow of a game while increasing the number of armchair experts shouting at television screens.

Therein is perhaps the most intriguing element of what the practice of diving has become and ultimately the ubiquitous effect this tactic has on football. Diving continues for many reasons, but perhaps the most obvious being it largely goes unpunished save a sporadic on-field caution. In La Liga and Serie A, diving is simply a large part of the game. Not to take anything away from either league as the quality of football in each is top notch. In other leagues, scrutiny heeds way to acceptance of the practice. Simulation continues to be a reprehensibly excusable part of football.

Incidents in the Premier League this past week saw Luis Suarez appear to be interfered with by Samuel Eto’o in the penalty area only for Howard Webb to deem the infraction unworthy of a penalty. Of course, Luis Suarez, to his self-imposed detriment, has put himself in the murky waters of decision-making for any referee due to his past diving incidents.

Manchester United’s Danny Welbeck’s atrocious flop against Tottenham in the 58th minute went unpunished by Howard Webb in a 2-1 defeat to a resurgent Spurs side. Similar incidents involving Welbeck against Wigan in the Community Shield and Liverpool in the league suggest this won’t be the last time the striker flops. And should Welbeck be blamed? The current culture of promising young strikers is hinged upon the pressure to achieve results whether by hook or by crook. Two sides of the debate can rule a player diving is either cheating, or he’s doing his job and trying to help his team.

Ironically, a mere two days after Jose Mourinho accused Luis Suarez of ‘acrobatic swimming pool dives” after being fouled by Samuel Eto’o, Oscar was rightly booked for a horrendous pirouette as Southampton’s goalkeeper Kelvin Davis challenged for the ball in Chelsea’s victory. There exists the argument that players dive when they’re anticipating contact and in all honesty, as ridiculous as that sounds to the masses, it’s the only rehearsed explanation hiding the real motive—to con the referee. And the discussion seems to run out of steam once that specific reason is surrendered.

Football needs solutions to deter players from diving. Just as the motives for diving are many and unavoidable, the solutions should be implemented to preserve the game’s integrity. Maybe the answer is a sin bin, where the offending player must sit for a specified period of time while his team plays a man down. Retroactive fines for blatant simulation are possible, but a committee of objective and qualified persons would need to operate on the premise of consistency in a sub-area of the game that’s one of the most inconsistent. And let’s be honest, FIFA is unlikely to implement any rational changes regarding the Laws of the Game in a timely manner.

Diving and simulation have reached every facet of the game. The calamity diving causes is fascinating in ways, like a football match, nobody can predict. And in that uncertainty is the entertaining factor that draws people to football—embracing the good and accepting the bad. For all its detriments, diving has created an almost self-aware enigma—a beautiful ugliness that just might tip the scales in your favour.

Luis Suarez — The Marmite Man

The Two Sides of Luis Suarez
Jonathan Townsend
December 21, 2013

Since his arrival to the red side of Merseyside in 2010, Luis Suarez has shown both sides of the persona making him one of the most polarizing figures in world football. Liverpool Football Club has remained steadfast in their loyalty to its prized asset when many thought the club could have and should have parted ways with the Uruguayan. His relationship with his peers, employers and supporters certainly has experienced its hills and valleys – and for good reason. When Suarez is focused, he’s unstoppable in ways rivaling the genius of Lionel Messi, the power of Cristiano Ronaldo, and the silky ingenuity of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

But what makes Suarez’s footballing displays so unique? For starters, Suarez’s proclivity to retreat deep into the midfield or out on the wing to retrieve the ball only to turn and put defenders on their heels is a quality rarely seen by modern strikers. What makes Luis Suarez a special talent is his versatility to operate as a one-touch fast-break player looking for that surgical pass on his way to goal, or as a striker who dribbles with direct intent to make defenders commit early. Perhaps the most impressive quality Suarez possesses is the ways he scores goals. Be it deadly free-kicks, technical six-yard box finishing, headers, long-range swerving half-volleys, or displaying futsal-esque dribbling abilities through a gauntlet of lunging defenders sets him apart with everyone save Cristiano Ronaldo.

Then there’s the well-documented dark side of Luis Suarez. The few analysts who knew Suarez’s incident history stemming from head-butting a referee when playing for Uruguayan side Nacional braced themselves for the rollercoaster of outbursts spliced with brilliant performances the player would undoubtedly bring to Holland. Unlike any other top player, though, Luis Suarez has the ability to tap into the primal beast deep within him instantaneously, which is perhaps what’s most perplexing about him. His fiery demeanor resembles a different style of football seen in the modern level. Suarez plays with an edge unseen on the lush fields of European football, but displayed on the daily in South American street soccer. What makes him hated also makes him great.

At Ajax, Suarez had his acclimation-induced struggles on the field, yet he still slammed home 111 goals in 159 appearances. During his tenure with Ajax filled up the disciplinary side of the stat sheet with a slew of cautions, dismissals and numerous off-the-ball incidents including the biting of PSV’s Ottman Bakkal – leading to the national Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf to dub Suarez “The Cannibal of Ajax”.

But for a club like Liverpool, who in 2010 found itself in a footballing freefall, acquiring the services of Luis Suarez assured one thing: goals. Liverpool has made a statement of monumental intent by signing Suarez to a contract extension until 2018 at the cost of raising the Uruguayan hitman’s weekly pay from £120,000 to £200,000. Today, he instantly justified that wage increase with a two-goal one assist display against Cardiff City. Supporters of Liverpool must see this as a wonderful piece of business and they aren’t wrong in their belief that securing the prized asset most likely guarantees a top four finish.

However, beneath the surface of this glamorous deal, Liverpool have set a multi-pronged warning to world football – the Liverbird is rising from the ashes. This deal not only secures Suarez’s services for the immediate future, but it also prevents ridiculous backhanded inquiries flooding through the door like Arsenal’s dubious £40,000,001 “offer” last summer.

For all the critics Suarez has for his disciplinary issues, no one doubts his footballing ability and his mental strength to be jeered more than he will ever be cheered. He’s not a shining example of sportsmanship (recall is impromptu goalkeeping display against Ghana in 2010 and the visible jubilant celebration after the missed penalty) football wants its stars to become. He’s not respected at the level of a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo and perhaps, nor should he be, but the point is that Luis Suarez doesn’t care.

Liverpool meshed as a cohesive unit with Daniel Sturridge leading the frontline during Suarez’s suspension the biting incident with Branislav Ivanović, dodged a bullet. At the time of the incident, Suarez was competing with Robin Van Persie for the league’s golden boot. He was in contention to be the PFA player of the year (although, let’s be honest, he never had a chance) and his stock was rising as his reputation fell. That inverse relationship is rarely seen in modern football. Had Suarez won the golden boot award the fact was evident – there was no saving Liverpool’s dreadful campaign last year. To that effect, he may have sought greener pastures when the opportunity arose, but Liverpool held an important bargaining chip.

The club, team and most of the supporters stuck with him as his public castigation intensified. Brendan Rodgers stood firm in his support for the troubled striker as the team rallied on without him, finding a new goal scoring hero in the revived and resurgent Daniel Sturridge. Many questioned whether Liverpool was where strikers went to commit career suicide as the Anfield faithful were still far from happy at the departure of Fernando Torres and the poor signing of Andy Carroll. The cause for their concern was palpable because last year, Liverpool looked like a side destined for seventh place finishes. Out of the coveted top four and without so much as even a sniff of challenging for the league title, Liverpool deservedly trudged through the storm of speculation.

Fast forward to September 29, 2013 when Suarez returned to league action away at Sunderland scoring a goal in his return. The goals haven’t stopped. Regardless of where Liverpool finish this campaign, the jackals will come sniffing hoping to steal Suarez away, and Liverpool, for all their tenacity, stick-to-itiveness and loyalty, might be resigned to cash in if the offer is anywhere near the Gareth Bale realm of monetary wheeling and dealing.

With no way of predicting the future, Liverpool do look likely to finish in the top four barring any injuries or almost inevitable suspensions for Suarez. The preposition of determining the club’s real quality lies in the string of performances that historically have plagued Liverpool in the Premier League era – compete and beat mid-table teams, lose to the Manchester clubs, Arsenal and Chelsea, and victories against the bottom dwellers. There is no better chance for Liverpool to build on their early-season success. The recent dismantling of an expensively misguided and mismanaged Tottenham side proved the team can play the opposition off the park without Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard on the pitch away from Anfield.

Time will tell if Luis Suarez has learned to keep his mouth shut to prevent any racial slur accusations and further biting incidents and increase the club’s chances of earning a Champions League spot. How will the press and public deal with a Luis Suarez with whom they harbour so much collective criticism if he’s able to stay out of trouble, on the pitch, and most importantly –on the score sheet?

According to scoring projections, the striker is on pace to score upwards of 40 goals this year in the Premier League alone, which leaves would-be suitors wondering what type of damage he’d unleash on defenses in La Liga which would most likely be the destination for Suarez should he depart Anfield. That very question is the reason the saying, “Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him,” perfectly suits the two sides of Luis Suarez.


American Underdogs

The Brazil 2014 World Cup draw ended the speculation and guessing. The match-ups drawn from each bowl during caused a collective gasp heard globally as the fixtures were assigned and the participating countries learned their World Cup 2014 fate.

For the United States, was the fate of a country still struggling to establish itself on the global stage of world football all but sealed? The wider sentiment most Americans have approaching Brazil is not a vote of confidence, that part is clear. What’s unclear is why the nation feels this way.

Group G, comprised of top-seeded Germany, playoff winners Portugal, a gritty Ghanaian side and the proudly dubbed underdog USA, looks tough because it is tough. The problem with the fixture list in Group G surely rests partly in the tenacity of the sides within it – but the real issue, for the USA, lays thousands miles away on American soil.

The cynics love a talking point. The surge of Group G talking points ranged from impossibility of isolating Cristiano Ronaldo to pointing out the fact that the Yanks were ousted from the previous two World Cups by far more tenacious Ghana sides and, of course, there’s the revived German Nationalmannschaft; capable of dissecting teams with their trademark German efficiency and discipline. Those are the valid talking points.

Enter the American concerns. American journalists and pundits pointed out (in the most American of ways) the total number of miles the USMNT will to travel, emphasizing it’s the most of any team at the tournament. Why should such a point hold relevance at this stage of World Cup discussions? Because that’s how the American football following calculates success and failure. This over-analyzing of facts is an aspect of sporting culture only America recognizes and oddly revels in; and it uncovers a real problem with the US game.

To the outsider looking in, the immersion of such facts and figures into American sporting culture seems ridiculous. To Americans, this is typical sports conversation and analysis fodder. As The Jam proudly sang about the slice-of-life aspects of British society in their 1980 hit ‘That’s Entertainment’, the American sports machine works best with entertainment greasing its gears.

Without these supplemental talking points, Americans might be put off solely talking about the footballing matters the country faces. Without a doubt, Sunil Gulati and the United States Soccer Federation has put its best foot forward and drastically improved the quality, development, presentation and ultimately the final product of US soccer since the 1990 qualification campaign and subsequent World Cup appearance.

But why does Ghana strike fear into the hearts of both American players and supporters alike? Has the West African nation with a population of 24 million people and a per capita income under $2,000 unlocked the secrets of world football? Hardly, but they have unlocked the USA. Twice.

Football in the States, regardless of its increasing popularity and expanding domestic league, has reached a period of sustained growth nearing plateau. The development of players is still lost in the mire of a nation devoid of a definitive footballing style. American sporting culture is obsessed with winning and high scores.

African, South American, European and Asian players play for love of the game. Outside of America, football exists in tight communities revolved around football and national pride. Many players don’t know another way of life and football is their escape and best sporting option.

Brazilians take pride in joga bonito, the Dutch pride themselves on the mechanical perfection of individual technique allowing their acclaimed Total Football to decimate opposing sides, while the Spanish have embraced the tiki-taka football (which ironically stems from the Dutch system and players from the 1970s onwards).

This discrepancy is entirely cultural. American players learn the game haphazardly to expose them to the revolving door of available sports and activities. A player might be great, but he may also have to play tennis, baseball or American football.

From a parenting standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with promoting sporting diversity and exposing a child to many different hobbies and sports. The result, however, is a nation comprised and armed with an ethos where players find themselves as Jacks of all trades and masters of none. A nation lacking a footballing identity.

At youth level, players are taught to win at all cost, even at the expense of learning the fundamentals. It seems that one singular purpose of playing the sport, in America, is results-driven and orientated. For far too long, the injection of misguided coaching held America back.

Development of individual technique, tactical awareness, football-specific fitness and consistency on the pitch take the back-burner in place of winning. The biggest, strongest and fastest players are put up top to score as many goals as possible whilst ignoring the fundamentals – but that has changed.

Until recently, youth systems failed the American player by stressing the Victory At All Costs doctrine throughout the scholastic ranks. In many of the top footballing countries, youth teams seldom keep score until the age of 15. Why? Because before that age, score doesn’t matter in comparison to total player development. The approach is both systematic and formulaic. The emphasis on individual achievement matters little compared to the collective development not of a team, but a generation of players.

There was a time when the talking heads of football punditry put stock in the argument that American success at a World Cup revolved around cultivating a team comprised of pure athletes. In other sports, pure athleticism might suffice, but in football, that argument couldn’t be more inaccurate.

Developing a mind for the game, understanding patterns of play that unlock tactically sound defences has been absent for generations at the developmental level. This essential approach is now implemented through a rejuvenated effort to develop footballers rather than winners.

The evidence is at the youth national team levels, especially their most recent success in the Nike Showcase Friendlies where the U17 YNT dominated a U17 Brazilian side (comprised of mainly U15 players) to the point where the Brazilians literally gave up at the 85 minute mark. There is progress, but the real question remains: is there enough?

Developing technique is paramount in all of the football powerhouses. There, players are groomed from an early age to appreciate and share the ball. In America, this practice is just starting to seep through the younger levels. In the results-driven world, American youth players aren’t exposed to enough quality competition.

Before the current academy system, the majority of the professional players the country produced hailed from the collegiate system. An obvious problem with college ball is the season lasts only about four months with maybe one month of pre-season conditioning.

This system, which allows promising players to gain a valuable education (which most will inevitably need), puts them developmentally behind players of the same age abroad playing at least nine months of the calendar year, thus expediting their speed of play and maintaining consistent levels of competitiveness absent in US players. If the USSF is smart, it should hold discussions with the NCAA and NAIA to extend the collegiate season. The truth is, it’s unlikely to happen.

So how does America cross this divide? The answer is the US Soccer Development Academy system which gives elite players in specific areas a chance to play year round with optimal training and competition schedules. The problem with this system, besides it being in its infancy, is what Jürgen Klinsmann identified in 2010 as a soccer analyst.

Then, he pointed out that America is the only country in the world where it costs families thousands of dollars to play for the best clubs. The country is literally pricing its talent out of the sport it was supposed to develop to be world beaters by 2010. That time has come and gone, but the inadequacy still exists.

There is, however, promise implementing such a system as it gives MLS a direct funneling channel to develop and foster young talent to carefully integrate within the ranks of individual clubs. In time, this system should prove a better alternative than the college route for promising players – but it must remain reserved only for the elite players, not just players from affluent backgrounds or those lucky enough to receive financial donations to fund their expenses.

As it stands, the US Soccer Development Academy tempts players who want to use it as a stepping stone to the aforementioned hit and miss collegiate system. The signs of its effectiveness are promising but not definitive.

The other glaring issue the USSF must face is the MLS calendar, which lies in a partial juxtaposition with Europe’s top leagues. MLS hardly has the clout to amend its schedule. The top American players must supplement their fitness and level of competition by either plying their trade abroad or going out on loan at the conclusion of their domestic campaign.

Landon Donovan, surely a player with his best years behind him, should be on a plane back to Merseyside and at the very least, training with Everton. Clint Dempsey’s decision to return to MLS after a wonderful spell in England’s top flight still mystifies the masses – but his return to Fulham on loan could see him recapture the form he demonstrated in his first spell at the club in time for the World Cup.

To further complicate the selection process of MLS-based players, how is it that Mike Magee, the league’s MVP, does not get a call-up to the national pool for a training camp? Magee, a player with two MLS Cups to his CV, has played with and against the league’s best players and continues to garner respect for his silky and lethally instinctive play. His experience would definitely provide a new attacking element to the national side in preparation for Brazil. The frustration lies more with Klinsmann’s apparent lack of interest in a player with quality attacking ability.

With regards to those playing abroad, a critical eye as to what teams secure their services needs closer examination. For instance, Brek Shea isn’t gaining the valuable experience sitting on the bench at Stoke City, having recently failed to even be named to the 18-man roster for the League Cup against Manchester United. Jozy Altidore has forgotten how to score goals at Sunderland, the underperformance of Americans abroad is peaking in an important year.

As important as it is for the top American players to play in the top leagues overseas, what good does it do for a player to be buried in the depth chart or be consigned to sporadic performances? The disconnect between players from the MLS and European-based players is apparent on the pitch.

Success in Brazil depends on three main factors: controlling the midfield, clinical finishing up front, and fitness. Praise should be heaped upon Jürgen Klinsmann and his staff for their precise attention to fitness in his training camps. But at this level, fitness should be a given.

Some might think Sunil Gulati and the United States Soccer Federation deserve the plaudits they receive for signing Jürgen Klinsmann to a contract extension. The extension is the practical move for a man entrusted with not only leading the national team in the next World Cups, but reaffirms the united front Klinsmann and USSF share in developing a new generation of players capable of becoming a top international team.

Klinsmann’s vision blends the best components the country has to offer in athletically talented players willing to learn from a legend with the tried and tested developmental practices Germany utilized to revitalize its own national program.

At a glance, Group G is one of three Groups of Death. Just like every team in the group, the US needs to accept that and begin to identify a way to maximize its preparation and performances before June.

The underdog role is one that resonates well with American players and supporters alike, but the day where America can look at themselves with the confidence and swagger of the other teams in Group G is in the near future. Perhaps the proving ground for the US is less on paper and more on the soil in Brazil.

By Jon Townsend. Follow me on Twitter @jon_townsend3