Kaka, Mude, herewegoagain, Paul.
The FIFA U-17 World Championship was first staged in 1985. FIFA holds U17 World Championship tournaments every two years. The final of the most recent tournament was won by Switzerland 1-0 against Nigeria, (who according to game reports dominated possession and were significantly more skillful). Brazil and Nigeria are the most successful nations in the tournament's history, with three wins each. Ghana has won the tournament twice. It has been held 13 times since 1985. Brazil, Ghana & Nigeria have each appeared 6 times in the final four. Between these three countries they have 18 final four appearances. Therefore, from a total of 52 teams 18 have represented Brazil, Ghana & Nigeria. This is an exceptional statistic!
The FIFA U-17 World Championship has been won 8 times by Brazil, Ghana & Nigeria…nations with a well documented intense focus on playing small-sided, pick up soccer in poor communities. The other 5 championships were won by Mexico (arguably also in that category), France, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and the USSR.
Why have poor African countries won 5 out of 13 U17 World Cups? Why have Ghana or Nigeria been in the final 9 out of thirteen times? Why has Ghana, with a population over just over 23 million people, and Nigeria with a population of 151 million people (combined 173 million people), enjoyed 12 final four appearances, while Europe with a population of 731 million and the richest, most sophisticated professional league systems in the world, have had just 13? Why is it that two countries have had as much success as the 44 European countries combined?
Why have Brazil, Nigeria and Ghana, with a combined population of 274 million, featured in the final 15 times, when the “Rest of the World” with a population of 6 billion has only played in 11 finals?
Do Brazil, Nigeria and Ghana have commonalities that explain their success?
Taking this questioning one step deeper why has Ghana with just 23 million matched Nigeria & Brazil who have populations respectively 5 and 30 times larger?
From 1991 to 1999 the Ghanaians were twice winners, twice runners up and once third in the U17 World Cup. Their ten year record of international dominance at the youth level is the best record across five World Cups in any level of international soccer. This incredible dominance came against overwhelming odds because International soccer trophies usually go to nations with larger populations. When Ghana’s population is taken into account the incredible relative success of the Ghanaians becomes all the more impressive.
In the history of the U17 World Cup only 13 championships have been held. Brazil, Ghana, Nigeria have won 8. The other 5 were won by the U.S.S.R (pop’ 300 million in 1987), Saudi Arabia (28 million), France (62 million), Mexico (106 million) & Switzerland (8 million).
In July of 1992 I took my 1979/80 KC Legends to the Manchester United Football Festival. That week Manchester United’s U19 F.A. Youth Cup Champion team and U17 Academy team held exhibition games against the Ghanaian National teams.
In 1992 Ghana were the reigning U17 World Champions. In 1993 they were second. In 1995 they won it again. Two months previous to the exhibition game Manchester United had won the FA Youth Cup Championship. Over the two legged final they had beaten Crystal Palace 6-3 on aggregate. English and Welsh International players David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Keith Gillespie, Nicky Butt, Robbie Savage, Gary Neville, Phil Neville & Simon Davies all featured in that Manchester United youth team.
This game was set up to be a classic. Ryan Giggs was already a Welsh International. The Manchester United squad was reputed to be the best they had prepared since the “Busby Babes”, (so tragically decimated in the Munich air disaster 1958), had won 5 straight youth cups from 1953-57.
The play of the Ghanaians was amazing! In both the U19 & U17 exhibition games they gave Manchester United’s talented squads, a football clinic. The games weren’t blow outs, (both I recall were 1 goal losses for Manchester United), but the domination by Ghana was almost total. The soccer Ghana played was poetry in motion. Fluid passing moves were interspersed with individual fakes. Every player on the Ghanaian squad was able to dribble deceptively under pressure. The whole squad could take a ball out of the air and prepare it for a shot or pass without looking at it. The Ghanaians took dangerous shots from all angles and distances. For 90 minutes the Manchester players circled the wagons and played resolute defense. They left the field with the certain knowledge they had been completely dominated in every phase of offensive play.
The Ghanaians were on a two week tour of the U.K. Having seen their amazing skills and tactical speed my curiosity was raging. I found out where the Ghanaians were training and visited their next practice session. As I walked towards the training pitch my first impression was of how disorganized and wasted the session was. All the players from both squads were congested into one penalty area. Cone goals had been set up on the 18 yard side lines of the penalty box. In one penalty area the whole 40 player group was playing multiple simultaneous games of 2 v 2.
This training environment was like nothing I had ever seen. It was crowded, confused, anarchistic, and at first, made absolutely no sense. However, as I continued to watch, the brilliance of the drill began to dawn on me. The incredible skills and tactical speed needed to make progress in such a crowded confusing environment was illuminating. While one player was executing an amazing fake, another player in a different 2 v 2 was working a short wall pass with his teammate; while a third player was bending his ball around the morass of bodies between him and the goal he was attacking. Every few seconds I saw moments of creative brilliance that took my breath away…a scintillating double scissors, a perfect short overlap, a deft scoring chip shot. The menu of world class plays I witnessed was varied and extensive. In an hour of watching these talented youngsters play football I witnessed a joy, passion and creative abandon that changed my perception of how to teach soccer forever!
While I was watching the players I also became aware of the subtle impact of the coaches. They were inside the penalty area intermingling with the players. They were part of the crowd and constantly giving advice. They were criticizing, offering tips and occasionally stopped individual 2 v 2 games to explain tactical points. None of what was being said was new. What was new was the focus on micro-technique and tactics and the intensity of the environment being used to teach it.
The coaches issued a constant stream of feedback and instruction. They switched their attention across multiple games of 2 v 2. They were always looking for the most beneficial coachable moment and keyed in on the piece of technique or tactical perception that had either been missed or had gone awry.
Until the Ghanaian epiphany I had truly believed that the Dutch 4 v 4 system was the best way to train the team components of the full game. The Dutch system is built around having forward, lateral and backward support options on every possession. Alternatively if you believe Daniel Coyle’s “The Talent Code’ Futsal (5 v 5) is the main reason why Brazil has dominated senior soccer at the world level.
Many of the world’s experts feel that small-sided games are the key to tactical development.
This article by Andy Roxburgh, (UEFA technical director and Ex Scottish National Team Coach), from the UEFA publication "The Technician", reinforces this. Time for self-expression
It was lunchtime in Turin, and while others around the table spoke about the UEFA Champions League match which would take place that evening in the Stadio Delle Alpi between Juventus FC and Manchester United FC, Roberto Bettega, Juve's vice-chairman and former star player, talked to me about street football.
“Although I was attached to this club from the age of nine years, much of my development took place in the streets. It was there that I practiced and refined my basic skills,” said Roberto, who won seven championships for the “Old Lady” of Turin and represented Italy on 42 occasions. What troubles Roberto, who played alongside Michel Platini, Paolo Rossi, Zbigniew Boniek and other icons of the game, is the dominating style of many youth coaches. With the passion of a street fighter, he added: “Young players need some time for self-expression, for spontaneity. Their coaches need to watch and listen more and instruct a little less.”Valid philosophy
In many parts of Europe, street football has all but disappeared, but the philosophy and the mentality remains valid. The street game was player-centered, competitive, skilful and fair, and the small-sided game, with one-on-one a key element, was the basic form of play. Youngsters practiced for hours on tricks and on passing and shooting techniques, using a wall as their silent partner. A love of football permeated all activities, and cups and medals (extrinsic motivation) had no immediate significance for the fierce young dreamers who were dedicated to the ball and lost in the romance of the game. Football leaders are acutely aware that the loss of the street environment, particularly in industrial regions, has provoked a greater need for training facilities, free-play areas, and appropriate equipment. But equally, there is an increasing demand for well-educated coaches who have the specific knowledge and the ability to work with young players. Just as the smart referee knows the difference between a foul, a dive and a legitimate tackle, so the sensitive youth coach understands when to drill, when to teach creatively, and when to encourage self-reliance and free expression. Football maxim
Every player, even the stars, were once grass-roots players. Every Sunday morning, as a youngster, Michael Owen of Liverpool FC played two v two games with his father and two elder brothers. Ronaldo claimed that his 'toe-poke' goal against Turkey in the semi-final of the FIFA World Cup was the product of his small-sided experiences as a young player. Wayne Rooney, Everton FC's 17-year-old striker, who recently became the youngest player to play for England, still plays 1 v 1 and 2 v 2 in the streets with his friends. It is a football maxim: if the grass roots are strong, then the game will grow and blossom. Street mentality
As facilities improve and programs become more sophisticated, there is the danger that some will lose sight of the heart and soul of the game. Coaches who have a street mentality, who appreciate the value of free play, self-expression, and passion, will never allow the game to become sterile and mechanical. The Japanese have a saying: “You are never too old to have a happy childhood.” For the youth coach, this translates into a simple message; stay young at heart. It is a sentiment that Roberto Bettega would fully endorse.”
Even though 5 v 5 & 4 v 4 are decent tools for player development, 2 v 2, the Ghanaian way, guarantees at least twice as many ball touches, and many times the tactical decision making opportunities, for the first and second attacker. In 2 v 2 there’s no place to hide so players are forced to engage in the “deep practice” that Daniel Coyle explains in “The Talent Code” to be the key to exceptional skill. Combine the small-sided “street soccer” incubator environment of Ghanaian children with the crazy, crowded nature of the Ghanaian team practice environment and their success at the U17 world level makes total sense.
It’s Futsal and the Dutch 4 v 4 method on amphetamines!!