English football must learn 'La Masia' lesson

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I defy anyone who loves football in England and who has a young son who loves football not to feel the same. I went through it. We all go through it.

You enroll your son in the local football club’s mini programme, you purr warmly to yourself and allow yourself to think that this is parenthood at its best. The purring may last a few weeks, a couple of years maybe. But pretty soon we all reach the same frustrated conclusive rhetorical question: is this really how we run football in the country?

With mad, power-crazy Dads at the helm? With win-at-all-cost coaching? With Sunday morning glory (on the pitch of course) a priority above technique? With goals that are too big? With no understanding that kids develop at different rates? And in a system where the big kids rule?

Now that my rant is complete, we can continue the discussion: how and why does the national team always fall so short.

Is it Roy Hodgson? Is it 4-4-2? No and no. Neither Harry Redknapp nor the Christmas tree formation would have made any difference. It simply cannot be that Hodgson, like a long succession line of managers before him, is not up to the job. It is a question of the resources.

Many people complain that our football academies are not doing a good job. But I disagree. I think the football academies do a great job. They talent-spot religiously, they pluck the best kids away from mad-Dad-land and do their best in polishing the gems that they find.

But even the football academies are limited. They are limited by the amount of time they get with their kids and by the extent to which they can impart the kind of broader education that a first-class junior footballer really needs.

I will take you now to Barcelona. A year ago, I had the privilege of being granted a rare visit and insight into the Barca academy. I visited La Masia, the boarding house where the boys stay. Many of them are there from the age of 11; Messi moved into La Masia when he was 13.

The message was this: breeding world-beating footballers is not solely about maximum hours with optimum coaching.

These were the words from Carlos Fulguera, the director of La Masia, which were so strong, I remembering him uttering them: “The level of control over these children is the crucial thing. We believe we can influence the children’s human development. That’s the difference.”

In Spain, they call a top kid “un crack” — from the English, a crack player. Fulguera told me: “Talent and footballing qualities alone are not sufficient to be un crack. Without the values, they are not equipped to be successful.”

In other words, becoming a top-class player is not about football being an intense after-school activity. It is a way of life. These are the values at La Masia: humility, striving, putting ego aside, believing in the team. It is about spending every day in a high performance environment, knowing how world-class players behave and what they had to go through to reach world-class.

There is progress being made slowly in the academies of English football. They get more hours with the young players than they used to, they are starting to forge links with local schools so that they can better marry the twin demands of lessons and coaching. Yet the intensity that young Barca wannabes are experiencing from the age of 11 is in a different league.

So this is my view. Use the best football club in the world as the model and copy it. Every leading academy in the country should be encouraged to turn itself into a high performance boarding school. It is not as if they don’t have the money to do it.

It is an old cliché: live football, eat football, sleep football. I agree. And I don’t believe the best young players in the country have yet come close.

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