In the past month, Italy (4-time FIFA World Cup champions) Chile (2016 Copa America champions) and the United States (2017 Gold Cup champions) all failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Each of these three National teams have had a history of regional and international success, and thus the failure of all three to qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia has been met with equal parts shock, anger, and of course criticism – of everything from the referees, the coaches, and even the so-called “entitled” millennial players.
But is all this criticism being dished out by fans, former players and everyone else in the media warranted, or could it be misguided? Below is a short list of three things which, in my opinion, every National Team – and its administrators, coaches, players, fans and media – need to stop doing in order to better ensure future World Cup qualification.
- Stop Blaming the Players: As mentioned previously, even though today’s generation of soccer players – the dreaded millennials – may very-well be the most self-centred, entitled group of people on the planet, all young soccer players from all National Teams around the world – including those from the teams that qualified for the World Cup – are selected from this same generation. Thus, other National Teams programs have found a way – perhaps through better coaching and sport psychology programs – to reach this entitled generation of players and get the most out of them in international competition. In any competitive environment, attitude reflects leadership. Thus, if the National Teams of Italy, Chile and the United States had better leadership – that is, coaching staffs better equipped to deal with today’s generation of players – then the attitude of their players would not have been a contributing factor to their teams’ poor performances.
- Stop Blaming the Referees: I’ve written about this topic before, but it bears repeating here: top level soccer referees have the toughest job of any official in any competitive sport by far. And it’s getting tougher and tougher for them with the combination of the increased speed of the modern game, and advances in technology that make scrutinising their every move and decision easier and easier to do. Top level referees are required to do almost as much high intensity running and sprinting as top level midfielders, despite being, on average, 10-20 years older than them. As if this weren’t bad enough, today’s referees are expected to be perfect – to go through an entire match without making even a single mistake. Even the best players in the world – who are younger and fitter than the referees and thus, should be better equipped to prevent fatigue that can negatively affect their decision-making ability – routinely make mistakes and are not criticised as much for them. Thus, instead of blaming the referees, it might make more sense for teams to focus on correcting, limiting and preventing the mistakes they make themselves in each and every match they play.
- Stop using the “too many foreign players in our domestic leagues” excuse: Admittedly, this concern has primarily been raised by Italian supporters, as the Chilean and American domestic leagues lack the resources to attract top foreign players; however, it is a popular excuse nonetheless. Unfortunately the excuse lacks merit. If having too many foreign players in a country’s domestic league – ostensibly limiting the opportunities for its home-grown players to develop and flourish – were truly a problem, why has it not affected the National Teams of Germany and Spain (both of whose top teams are laden with international talent from all over the world)? The answer is that Spain and Germany have produced domestic players in their current National sides with enough talent to earn starting roles alongside their foreign teammates within the top professional clubs, as was the case with the top Italian players from their most recent successful generation, the mid-2000’s. Many of the current generation of Italian National Team players – including goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, and defenders Giorgio Chielini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli who together formed the defensive backbone of the very successful Juventus teams of the past five years – have also clearly not been held back by the large number of foreign players plying their trade in the Italian Serie “A”. If other Italian midfielders and attackers were as good as the top players in those positions 10 years ago – such as Andrea Pirlo, Francesco Totti and Luca Toni, just to name a few – they would be starting with their club teams as well. Thus, instead of blaming poor performances on the abundance of foreign players (limiting opportunities for domestic players), in their professional leagues, Italy and other nations should focus their energy on developing players worthy of these opportunities in the first place.
Ultimately, the success or failure of any National Team in World Cup qualification must be the responsibility of its leadership – the coaches in the team itself, plus those who work in the top professional clubs, youth academies, and youth National Teams programs.
If these coaches and programs are able to produce talented, resilient, and mentally tough player with the ability to compete and excel at the international level, then the need to provide excuses for not qualifying for the Word Cup will not exist, because in all likelihood, World Cup qualification will have already been secured.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.