If the Uruguayans can do it, why can’t we?

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It would be easy to write a column this week asking why the FAI’s head honcho is the only chief executive from the competing nations at the European Championships to have his enthusiastic socialising so readily available on YouTube. It would be even easier to ask why the FAI’s head honcho seems to be more famous for being famous than for talking about his views on how kids should learn how to play the game in Ireland, especially now that it’s become apparent we are producing players so deficient in basic technique. But, that would be like shooting fish in a barrel.

It’s much more instructive to consider what just happened to Ireland and then to look at Uruguay.  At the 2002 World Cup, that faraway tournament when Mick McCarthy’s team gave Spain all they could handle, Uruguay exited in the first round, finishing third in Group A behind Denmark and Senegal. Not a distinguished showing by any means, it caused much hand-wringing and introspection in the South American country. When they subsequently failed to even reach the 2006 finals, following a play-off defeat to Australia, there was plenty more debate about how the national team had started to underachieve so badly.

As anybody who’s been paying attention knows, the Uruguayans reached the semi-finals in South Africa two years ago. Last summer, they defeated Lionel Messi and Argentina (the host nation) on the way to winning the Copa America. At this point then, a decade along from Japan and South Korea, the Uruguayans will be expected to seriously contend when the planet’s best teams gather in Brazil 24 months from now. John Delaney and the FAI should be investigating exactly how the Uruguayans went from doing so badly in 2002 to being among the world’s best ten years later.

Uruguay is a perfect model for Ireland because it has a smaller population (3.3m people) and a tiny playing pool to choose from. Not to mention either that almost all of its international players earn their living outside their home country. When the Scottish FA recently began to examine the reasons why that nation was no longer producing top quality players (they were recently trounced 5-1 by the USA in Florida), they sent a deputation to Montevideo to research the work being done there. Why? Because, in the past decade or so, the Uruguayans have produced, amongst others, Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani, and Luis Suarez (moral considerations aside). They must be doing something right. So what is it?

 

With the help of FIFA money (we did mention the Uruguayans are cash-strapped just like the FAI), they established something called the Goal Projects, an initiative designed to revamp the way young players were developed and coaches were taught. A high-tech national centre of excellence was established in Montevideo and from there the new way of thinking and approaching the game was brought all over the country. The results in just over a decade have been spectacular. The current run of success being enjoyed by the senior team is only the most obvious example of that.

Last summer, Uruguay’s U-17s trounced Brazil 3-0 in the semi-finals of the World Cup before eventually losing the decider to what Mexico considers to be its greatest generation of young players. A good omen for the future. This year, Uruguay’s Under-20s have reached the Olympics for the first time since 1928. Unlike idiots like Great Britain, countries like Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina treat the five-ringed circus soccer tournament as a serious chance to give young players invaluable international competitive experience, not a potential pre-retirement party for has-beens like David Beckham. They reap what they sow.

The Uruguayan revolution has been helped too by the input of Oscar Tabarez, the senior team manager.

Tabárez personally oversees the Uruguayan youth team set-up, appointing coaches himself and assuring the continuity in players’ development, in the philosophy, and in the planning,” wrote Joel Richards on FoxSoccer.com. “The group comes first, and this is exactly what is translated onto the pitch and in their performances at the highest level.”

In his second stint in charge, Tabarez is keenly involved in educating and promoting coaches at youth level because he wants to ensure that, long after he’s retired, there is a conveyor belt of coaches and players of the quality required.

“Since 2006 we have been developing a project which is an integrated plan which includes studying, playing, competing and learning about football,” said Tabárez, explaining his approach last summer. “The foundation of that is what we are enjoying now. Suárez, Cavani, Cáceres, Lodeiro, Coates, Hernández and other players all emerged from this project. They weren’t thrown into the full national team too early, they were moved up to the team at the right time.”

Imagine. Here we have a national team manager with long and medium-term plans and ideas about improving the type of players being produced. This is the type of visionary Ireland need to get involved, somebody who is thinking beyond just trying to bore our way through the qualification process of the next tournament, an individual with notions about how to make sure the next generation of players are technically better than the last.

There is something else to consider here. John O’Shea, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff, and Robbie Keane, four of the ten outfielders who started for Ireland last Monday night, all starred for Brian Kerr’s magnificent underage sides back in 1997 and 1998. Aside from when Dunne’s off-field problems made him a sub on Mick McCarthy’s side, this quartet has been the bulwark of the senior team for a decade now.

How ironic then that Kerr has no role in the future direction of Irish football. Our most successful under-age manager ever, a fellow who groomed nearly half the starters against Italy at the European Championships and the man who worked miracles for the Faroes, he is judged to have nothing to contribute to the grass-roots in Ireland. In Uruguay, they’d make good use of somebody like him because they know they couldn’t afford not to. Therein lies the difference.
 
(First appeared in Evening Echo, June 22nd, 2012)
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