The questions that those of us involved in Football must ask are “Why do we train?” and “Why do we play?”

     Orange-colored nylon netting attached to white box-frames are arriving back into our parks. Shin-guards and water-logged, dried, then soaked and dried again boots are adding their scents to what have been the welcomed aromas of summer, and open-fields with dulling white-lines will soon be repainted with many varieties of quadrilateral shapes.  Random, unorganized groupings of kids will soon be replaced by scheduled, organized groupings of kids playing football; arguably the world’s most popular sport.  

     This is the time of year when golfers contemplate goals for the upcoming winter. This is also the time of this particular year when coaches are finding out if their finalized goals for the London Olympics led them to gold-medal glory. Two questions that golfers must answer as they undertake this process are "Why do I practice?" and "Why do I play?" The reciprocal questions that those of us involved in Football must ask are “Why do we train?” and “Why do we play?” These two questions are part of the process, as well as part of the problem and are essential to whether national teams such as the United States women or Brazilian men are able to return to the level of world dominance they once held. Our honest answers to these questions will also, in part, determine our level of commitment to achieving our goals.  

     Though it is easy for people in many parts of the world to take the presence of a round-ball in the summer for granted, the Federal International Football Association (FIFA) and other sub-federations such as the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and the Football Federation Australia (FFA); to only name a few would say we are fortunate to have such free access to ‘the beautiful game.’  

     These organizations (along with many others) either already have or are starting to recognize the need for and thus begin (or continue) to recommend a concept I’ll call “FreeFootball For the Future” (FFFF) to their constituents. Slowly, but surely, we are starting to see the need to diminish the financial burden on players whom are the future of the game and recognizing ‘money’ as a significant force of prevention of Proper Player Development (PPD) [a phrase I coined in an earlier blog and have used numerous times since then] and the promotion of the overall game.   

     Before you jump out of your seat and start defending your profession with redundant responses, think about the following event. It is called the Self-Transcendence Race. It is a 3,100-mile run - not in scenic lands - but a half-mile course around a building. Each runner has to circle the building 5,649 times to complete the run. They usually compete from 6:00 am to 12 midnight. One of the more recent winners finished in 46 days and 6 hours. What did he get? A trophy and photo album.  

     It can’t be argued that money provides excellent resources.   Money affords nearly the same amount of power as a person in a position of power, with only the laws of the land separating the two. Money seems to provide this game with an adulterated source of stability, of sorts in two forms: Prestige and Reputation. Research isn’t needed to show that one’s consumption of money is too often associated with their conscious or even sub-conscious effort to reduce the risk of credibility, success and self-efficacy.  

     Now, consider another event: the Texas Water Safari. This event is a 260-mile canoe race. Participants are in the boat for about 36 hours straight and the boat cannot stop moving. They endure heat, wind, rain, sharks and lots of physical pain. What do they receive at the end? A t-shirt and a meal.  

     In Western Australia, the state sub-federation of the FFA; Football West, has shown that a system rich in opportunities to play, a system which is high in the number of participants, and associated with lower financial demands on players and even more-often, no financial requirement to play, as well as a higher level of organization and competition for those whom want it and need it, can be successful on every front and build further success for itself upon it’s own self-generated success.  

     As you can see, the athletes whom participated in the Self-Transcendence Race and theTexas Water Safari did something quite remarkable because they "wanted it." Obviously, there was no glory or money, but a sense of accomplishing something difficult and important. When we think about our football goals for the London Olympics and thus our own personal goals for this beautiful game of football that we all love so much, why are they important to us? Why will we tune in as a nation, stay inside and watch the matches unfold on the television as the days get slowly shorter, the sun doesn’t quite get as high in the sky and the weather hopefully stays in the color form pallet of blue instead of grey? Maybe you live inside a dome and the weather never wakes you up with that feeling of not wanting to face the human nature to take short cuts? Really, though, why do we care how our capped lads and lasses do in London? Whether a football administrator, coaching, member of the media or even the players themselves, we MUST be clear about what it is we want. When we are clear as to what we truly desire, the commitment usually remains regardless of pain, hard work and setbacks.  

     So while we self-reflect, we can’t forget what clouds our self-vision way too often, money. While money has it’s “apparent” benefits, the concept of enabling players to participate for “free” also seems to be having a positive effect on players of all-ages.  It appears that the elimination of costs in places the world-over have found an unknown tapped resource of raw talent in the likes of Zinedine Zidane.  

     So, if you had to sit-down at a table at your local McDonalds, order a Two Cheeseburger Extra Value Meal – Super-Sized – with a Coke and list what you believe should be the goals for your national side at the London Olympics, what would you write down on that list scribbled on a Mickey-Dee’s napkin?  

…more specifically, what are your goals for the team that you, personally, coach?  

...and...MORE IMPORTANTLY, what are your goals for your players?

     In recent years, football has been highlighted as an important as not only the most popular sport in the world, but also as one of the fastest growing. The growth continues exponentially, even though the cost of participating in some places is increasing even more so. This, by no means, should be used as an excuse or a factual basis for the continued growth of monetary gain in this sport. Players who live in impoverished areas have always been at risk of being forced to leave their creative skill-set in the gutters of the streets in which that skill-set was developed. As the financial requirement to play at higher-levels has increased so has the deficiency of players such as Zidane. This is because dark houses and poor nutrition that coincides so often with the lower-income population inhibits simply the discovery or identification of the hidden gems of the athletic world.   What if NBA future Hall-of-Famer,Allen Iverson, had grown-up kicking a soccer ball in Flushing Meadows Corona Park instead of bouncing a basketball at Rucker Park? If someone had indentified his athletic ability at an earlier age and put a soccer ball at his feet, he might be using his famous “cross-over” dribble on World Cup defenders instead of those in the NBA.

     Let’s think about that possibility for a moment. Let’s put aside the fact that very few, if anyone is scouring the inner-cities of America looking for the young Allen Iverson’s – that’s a whole other point of contention - and focus on what would’ve been done for him if he had chosen soccer over basketball.  Would he be able to afford the fees to play for a club, a coach, and a team that would allow him to develop properly?  If so, how would he get to training and matches? Even if he was able to get to training and matches, what about tournaments and showcases?  In our current system, how would he be identified and developed and then brought up through the ranks without the financial means to even get out of the city? Many coaches, scouts and trainers across the world recognize this very fact and recommend even higher doses of soccer-minds into these impoverished areas than most federations are already injecting.  

     The freedom to play, without having to worry about money, provides essential emotional and psychological variables that ultimately are needed for Proper Player Development. Variables like “lack of pressure” from parents who are footing the bill and a lower level ofPerformance Anxiety, as the player doesn’t feel they have to live up to the expectations that come with some large financial investment. The elimination of money will help detoxify the player’s psyche of unneeded stress and improve their self-efficacy. It may also protect the player against undue outside influences; outside stimuli that so many times are the end of a player’s potential. Some coaches are wary of possible psychological factors in their players. It’s not a matter of having a degree in Sports Psychology for a coach to not only be aware of, but also protect their players from negative factors that could effect the Player’s Development.  It’s simply a matter of taking the time to read, listen, observe and…yes…I’m about to say it…ask! There’s very little most coaches can do to deal with the financial ankle weights that our system is trying to swim with, but there is plenty they can do to buoy their players through the rough waters of their development. What concerns me is that some coaches either don’t know how to, don’t know they need to or that they simply choose not to understand both the existence of the stress that money lays upon a player’s shoulders and how heavy that stress actually is.

…and while we’re at it, let’s determine what your goals are personally as a coach? 

    Never-the-less, the extent to which money serves as a toxin causing disease in players whom are not from affluent families is unknown, and most experts agree that population sub-groups; like the inner-city, third-world countries, etc…who don’t rely exclusively on the power and leverage of money suffer negative consequences when it comes to opportunities of playing this game at higher levels. However, if the money isn’t there, then what do these young players do?

     With this in mind, let’s now combine those goals that you have set for your team, your players and yourself and when doing so, consider the effect that money has on the possibility of being able to achieve these goals.  Does it hinder accomplishing them?  Does it have no effect?  Are the financial resources you have available to you a crutch that you must lean on for support in order to accomplish these goals?

     All of these goals that you have listed (hopefully, though, not on a McDonald’s napkin) - How are we going to accomplish them? We MUST be specific. 

     Therefore, the Asian Football Confederation has recently stated that the risk of not adapting our respective models for youth development to alleviate the reliance on materials (re: money) far outweighs any risk the lack of financial security would bring.   For example,Pop Warner Football, the largest youth football (American football) organization in the world, currently recommends limiting fees per player to no more than what is required to operate and to not charge additional children from the same family, regardless of whether they are in the same age group. Generally, Pop Warner reports an average “Financial Attrition Ratio” of less than 1.4%.  If 98.6% of our youth were able to play soccer regardless of their financial demographics, how much better would the game be overall?

     What are we going to have to sacrifice to accomplish our goals?

     The far greater risk to the development of our players is not potential toxins from the existence of money period, but the ever looming potential for a reliance on it.  One can look no further that the major metropolitan areas across the United States of America and see a clear link between a decline in access to opportunities, and a decline in the number of Allen Iverson’s produced.  

…and…finally, what do we expect to happen – IF – we fail to accomplish our goals in London?...IF we fail to accomplish our goals for our players and our teams?...and…IF we fail to accomplish our goals as coaches?

     Money is one of the most powerful concepts in the world.  It must be recognized that in most situations money is usually nothing more than a “net gain” for the economics of football. It is not, and can never be, the very foundation of success for young and future footballers. It is said that ‘money is the root of all evil.”  Money itself is not evil.  The power of money, our greed for it and our reliance upon it is. Do we want the future of our players and this beautiful game relying on “evil” or relying on itself?