St George’s Park is merely the first step on the long road to success

With the opening of the FA’s fabulous new national football centre, St George’s Park, there might be a temptation for England to believe that they have taken a massive leap forward in their chances of becoming a top footballing nation. This would be short-sighted and dangerous.

While St George’s Park is undeniably an impressive, technologically state-of-the art facility, it will not address the pressing questions of unearthing technically able footballers in every region of England. The good work has only just started, and there will need to be carefully-implemented mechanisms to ensure that the kind of enlightened coaching that will take place on St George’s Park’s 11 outdoor pitches can filter down to the youth training programmes of every professional club in the country. For it is here that the gems of future generations of footballers will be discovered, and only after this process that St George’s Park will come into the picture as a place signifying that they have made it to the big-time. Alan Hansen claims that footballers do not improve on the technical skills in their possession once they are past fifteen years of age; up until that point, all their significant tutoring will take place under the watch of their hometown clubs.

The model for national footballing excellence is quite rightly Spain, and it is striking how many clubs in Spanish football have contributed to both producing stars of the future and ensuring that they all are comfortable at playing a fluid passing game. Spain is not just made up of Barcelona and Real Madrid, but also Isco of Valencia, Javi Martinez and Iker Muniain of Bilbao, Adrian of Atletico Madrid, Sergio Canales of Racing Santander. These are but some of the names that have ensured Spain’s U21s and U19s look well-set to continue the record-breaking path forged by the seniors, and the range of clubs that have made up the composition of the squads is testament to a common winning formula that has been implemented at youth level across Spanish clubs. Partly to do with using resources the right way –Jimmy Burns has described how money was poured into building top-class facilities in every village and city football club in the land after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics – ,partly the product of a footballing culture that emphasises enjoyment and love of the ball over winning at all costs, what is noticeable is how this concerted effort to nurture cultured footballers reached every corner and most clubs in Spain. As a result, the country now boasts a system that throws up more talents than their national teams can accommodate, and they all come to the national team already acclimatised in a style of play that has been practised by club teams across the country. While England has built an impressive totem to their ambition in the form of St George’s Park, none of the funds have yet gone towards clubs’ youth facilities at every level – nor has there been evidence of a plan to implement a homogenous vision of how budding footballers in the country will play the game. Meanwhile, in the absence of such a plan, the recruiting ambition of Premier League clubs mean that a great number of young English footballers are frozen out in favour of their more technically able overseas counterparts.

These are the hard questions that the FA have yet to provide answers for as they seek to correct England’s stagnation and decline at international level. Spain have set the bar wondrously high, but in doing so, have also given clear signs of how to approach building the right footballing culture. England will have to bury far deeper than the shining foundations of St George’s Park if it is serious about restoring pride to the national game.

Futile friendlies in need of a rethink

It was the sight of stars as worthy of protection as Fernando Torres, Santi Cazorla, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta trudging vacuously up and down the pitch during a meaningless friendly in Puerto Rico, just three days before they are required to put their bodies on the line in wholehearted contests in Europe, that made me wonder whether the Spanish national board really had its players’ best interests at heart. As happy as they are to help this golden generation win sporting glory for Spain, it is clear that they are almost as keen to exploit their talent whenever there is a suitable cash reward to be had. Playing in Puerto Rico reportedly earned the Spanish board three million Euros, with a portion of the rest of the money the friendly generated presumably going to FIFA.

The only way in which such bloated and callously scheduled international friendlies (coming as they do on the heels of two recently concluded major international tournaments) can be justified is if the money generated is entirely put towards assisting the smaller, host country’s football development. The one mitigating quality of the meaningless exercise that was carried out in Puerto Rico on Wednesday was witnessing the unabashed joy and enthusiasm that scoring against the world and European champions brought the Puerto Rican fans. This potential cannot be harnessed to good effect by a friendly from which almost all the money disappears into the pockets of the Spanish board, but might have longer-term benefits if the funds are instead used to build the footballing infrastructure Puerto Rico needs to take advantage of the popularity of the game throughout the country. All it takes is one footballing icon to emerge from Puerto Rico for a multitude of generations to be inspired to improve their lot through his example, and it would give international exhibition matches a reason to exist beyond fattening the wallets of the undeserved. It is also a cause that footballers like Andres Iniesta, who currently has valid reason to criticise the madness of flying halfway around the world to play in an aimless fixture, would fully identify with and get behind (all the more so if a more thoughtful date can be found to fit such matches in the international calendar).

In the interim, the players’ unions should demand that national boards and FIFA account for every dime that is earned from their stars plowing through these matches, so that we can rest assured that the money is being put to causes similar to the one described above rather than going directly into top officials’ bank accounts. It is an infuriating characteristic of FIFA and some associated national boards, that their role as governors of the world’s most populous game does not give them a sense of responsibility to explain every action that football’s stakeholders are unhappy about. After their recent shenanigans in awarding World Cups in suspicious circumstances whilst displaying a seemingly pervasive atmosphere of corruption – as well as the dubiousness of some high-ranking Spanish officials’ past activies (e.g Sandro Rosell’s business relationship with Ricardo Teixeira of Brazil and FIFA) – it is the least that they can be expected to do.