Italian football produces fantastic players. Its production line of talent is founded on the ability to link competition and development at junior level.
After observing the Serie A club academies of Fiorentina and Empoli for three weeks I am convinced that New Zealand can also produce international class players. But we need to change the level of competition within our system.
I believe a focus on development in a competitive environment will create excellent young players who love to play the game.
Competition and enjoyment co-exist. They are intertwined and not at the opposite ends of the scale.
Our best footballers match the Italian academy players in terms of technique. New Zealand players are fortunate to be training on grass as opposed to the gravel facilities of some of their Italian counterparts. They also spend more hours during the week in school organized physical education classes which is also helping to improve their overall general coordination. Couple this with a generally healthier, less stressful lifestyle, and Kiwi players are actually, in many ways, at an advantage over young Italian players.
However, our best still trail the Italians from a physical perspective. The Italians have quicker feet, are still more coordinated and have better balance. This isn’t a surprise given agility work with and without the ball is the starting point for most training sessions from the age of 11. Use of hurdles and agility ladders at training was common.
The Italians are also battle hardened after playing up to 80 games through a 10-month season. During my visit, Empoli was taking a young team to an international tournament that included European clubs and the national age group teams of Saudi Arabia and Hungary. Soon after I departed the Fiorentina U-14 squad was travelling to Spain to attend a tournament hosted by Real Madrid.
New Zealand based clubs aren’t in a position to play those sorts of fixtures regularly but we should be able to have our top players competing against each more often. To do this we need aligned school, club and federation opportunities to ensure regular match play and a much higher volume of games each year.
But the biggest difference between the two countries is the level of competition in junior football.
Italian youngsters are challenged to be the best they can be from a very young age.
At Empoli the U-11 group has 30 children training. At the end of the season the group is split in half. The best players go to the U-12 academy while the others train with an amateur club within the Empoli environment.
This process continues each year – there is always competition for places. It is a selective environment that drives development.
Squad members know that they cannot turn up and go through the motions at training or they will miss out on future opportunities.
We need to instill that attitude, particularly with our best prospects to form great habits that drive success.
My observation was that the Italian children enjoyed this environment because they wanted to be challenged.
New Zealand children, like the Italians, like to compete.
I am not advocating a win at all costs mentality at junior level, rather an environment where players enjoy mastering a new skill and being recognised.
Accentuating that innate competitive desire so that young footballers thrive and enjoy learning the game is key to improving football in New Zealand.
In my next blog entry I will outline what young Italian footballers are doing to ensure competition becomes a habit which, in turn, fuels their love of the game.
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