World Cup has lessons for Ireland

For Belgium the penny dropped in 2000 while Germany’s nadir arrived four years later but both have shown Ireland there’s plenty to be gained by recognising the inherent faults of their football systems.

Such has been their slump over recent years in Fifa ranking and the illogical qualifying structure that decrees only 13 countries from Europe will reach the next World Cup in four years’ time, realistically only hope rather than expectation exists for Ireland’s prospects of making it to Russia.

Of more concern, however, is the long-term landscape.

After the Belgians limped out of the European Championships at the group stage in 2000 and when Germany suffered a similar humiliation four years later the drawing boards were removed from cold storage to engineer their respective revivals.

Consumed with preparing for the World Cup they were hosting in 2006, manager Jurgen Klinsmann instead delegated the structural reform to U21 manager Dieter Eilts and an emerging tactician called Joachim Low.

Radical surgery from the bottom up incurred initial pain but spectacular consequential benefits in time.

The Germans reached two successive World Cup semi-finals, as well as the Euro 2008 final in between, along their way to the apex of the global game last Sunday.

Half of German players involved in the squads for last year’s Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund emerged from the DFB’s talent programme for eight to 14 years old established in the middle of the last decade.

Comparing a country of such vast population and resources like Germany may be unkind on Ireland but doing so with Belgium is reasonable. They may have double the amount of inhabitants as Ireland, yet the multiple of Champions League group stage participants is exponentially greater.

Technical director Michel Sablon was pleasantly surprised to observe the fruits of their 10-year plan come to fruition earlier than forecast in 2008 when their U23 side including Vincent Kompany and Marouane Fellaini conquered Italy at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Under Sablon’s tutelage, and with full buy-in from all facets of the local community, a fundamental cultural shift in how players were taught had been enacted. It centred on the mantra that winning at schoolboy level came a distant second to the need for kids to learn techniques within a fun environment.

The emergence in the past 12 months of teenager Adnan Januzaj is just one recent illustration of the prolific syllabus.

In contrast to the hothouse Januzaj thrived in at Anderlecht and the Belgium FA, the FAI at present have access to elite talent in Ireland for two hours on a Monday night during the regular season.

That set-up only starts at U15 level, making a mockery of the first word in the Emerging Talent Programme.

Moves are afoot by the association’s high performance director Ruud Dokter to lower the age to U11s from the start of next season but that planned expansion has already got bogged down in politics.

By the time the FAI consultation roadshow hit Waterford in May, full implementation seemed a long way off. Some leagues use the school holiday periods the FAI are aiming to host their gatherings for their own coaching events.

It was also confirmed at their recent AGM by Mick O’Brien, Chairman of the powerful Schoolboys Football Association of Ireland (SFAI), that they had yet to give the project their blessing.

Dokter’s predecessor, Wim Koevermans, has spoken at his unveiling in 2008 of the need to “build a castle” at the FAI’s headquarters in Abbotstown for the talent to funnel into from the regions. Six years later and construction on Phase One of the facility has belatedly begun.

Still, a cursory glance up north proves that progress doesn’t rely on bricks and mortar. Former Liverpool player Jim Magilton, appointed by Northern Ireland last year as head of elite performance, recently brought his U12 and U13 squads to Dublin for friendly games. Winning wasn’t his priority but the fact they did vindicates some of his early endeavours.

“The talent is out there and it is up to us to develop new structures and technique-based systems which allow us to develop our best young players from age six right through to the senior squad,” he said.

That’s the type of vision that got Germany and Belgium on the right track.


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