Thursday, January 7, 2010

The full-time controversy

With nothing much to shout about, the suggestion by Sports Minister, Datuk Ahmad Shabeery Chik to have a full-time national team has become a much talked about thing. Here are some views:

Datuk Peter Velappan, Former AFC General Secretary:

"FA of Malaysia's decision to have a full-time national team is a step backwards and could have drastic consequences on the future of the sport in the country. Clubs are the nucleus for football development and FAM's idea of a full-time national squad is akin to building a house without a foundation.

"It also goes against the standard practice of development. How were the players going to remain competitive if they did not play week-in, week-out. The decision to have a full-time national team is, frankly speaking, an amazing one and it is totally against how development works.

"Fifa (football's world governing body) has a development pyramid and it starts from the grassroots. No team can be built from the top but this is exactly what FAM is planning. Development should start at the grassroots and both Fifa and AFC have tournaments designed for players in the various age groups. Developmental tournaments start at the Under-12 level and go on till the players are 18 or 19 years old.

"At that level, we can already see who are the players who will go on to don national colours and who will be playing club level football. This was a system which Malaysia had in the 1960s and 70s. Those were the golden years of Malaysian football as the game was played seriously at all levels. It is, except for in Malaysia, still pretty much the same across the world today and two leading Asian examples are Japan and South Korea.

"We need players at the grassroots playing regular football at the district, state, national and international levels. Only then will they progress and only then can the local league be of decent quality.

"What about other players? How will they make the national team? I also believe that the move will cause a friction between FAM and the state/club teams as nobody wants to lose their best players."

Windsor John Paul, International Football Consultant and Former Fifa Development Officer:

"A FULL-TIME national team is an ingenious idea that has yet to work anywhere else. Winning the SEA Games gold medal in Laos could prove to be just like China's solitary World Cup finals appearance in 2002 if measures are not taken to ensure quality throughout the structure.

"The Fifa-assisted Grassroots Development Programme, which is provided at virtually no cost to interested countries, can provide that. Fifa provides technical assistance and training, while the countries who take up the offer are required to invest in grassroots development more seriously.

"This programme has resulted in China being accorded the Best Development Nation award by Fifa at the same World Football Awards night where Lionel Messi was named Player of the Year last month.

"We worked on one key principle -- that good coaches make good players. For that, firstly we had to go down to the basics. China had spent so much time and so much focus was put on the league and their national team, but they had not managed to produce players of quality.

"They never made it to any age group World Cup final rounds, nor were they in the Women's World Cup. But they were obsessed with the national league and national team.

"The first part of the structure was where Fifa stepped in to study the Chinese structure and identify what needed to be done right from the base of the pyramid and it eventually saw school teachers being relieved of coaching duties with school teams.

"Fifa trained ex-players to be coaches. We set the criteria for coaches to be involved in this programme to comprise those who had at least played club football, not teachers. This saw China breaking new ground, even doing away with their rigid school system rules and allowed for children at the grassroots level to be trained by qualified coaches instead of teachers.

"We increased the base of qualified coaches and these were former players. They were then employed by the CFA or their respective district or provincial FAs to coach children at schools.

"This was necessary to ensure that the right coaching is given to children from the very beginning, at the grassroots level for children between six and 12 years old, in order for the system to produce quality players.

"This also gave a chance to ex-players to continue to earn a living from football, and they received proper training from Fifa for that purpose. Teachers are an important part of the structure, but not as coaches.

"The Chinese FA ensured that there were sufficient festivals and tournaments for all age groups. When the players reach the youth level (13 to 20 years old as categorised by Fifa), there has to be leagues. Players cannot be playing in carnival-type tournaments at this stage as they need to be playing continuously in order to improve as players. It cannot just be one-off tournaments.

"The success of Under-17 world champions Switzerland, was due to a similar project. Switzerland shares a similar problem with Malaysia, in that it is a country where education of children takes priority over sports, so there had to be a programme tailor-made for that country.

"There is now one of the best development structures in the world in Switzerland, which is tied to their club structure. We have already confirmed that the way to ensure continued quality and success is by investing in the grassroots."

"Attachments with foreign teams, as the Sports Ministry and the FA of Malaysia (FAM) had ceremoniously agreed on Monday as part of the package that sees selected players committing full-time to the national team, may be too early to call.

"Culturally, I don't think we have the players prepared yet. When I was development officer at FAM, we tried it with Juzaili Samion, Fadzli Shaari and Akmal Rizal Ahmad Rakhli, as we did with Titus James Palani, all in France.

"Despite all efforts to make it as comfortable as possible for our players, it didn't work out. Europe is an entirely different culture, so it could work with preparing players first with short stints in Vietnam, Thailand or Japan, where leagues are better than ours, funded by the government. Send them to Europe when they are ready."

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