Thu, Oct

Shaka: Here’s why T&T football needs the SSFL

Before I get going in earnest let me start by admitting my own bias. I haven’t actually lived in Trinidad and Tobago for well over 25 years now. As much as I’ve tried to keep up with the local game, it’s been through the media and I fully appreciate that being ‘on the ground’ provides an invaluable insight into our footballing landscape.

Also, I am a product and a huge fan of the Secondary Schools Football League (SSFL)—or the Colleges League at it was called back then. As much as I represented T&T at just about every youth level as far as I can remember, without my ‘escape’ to the Colleges League, I can say with some certainty, I would’ve quit the game by age 16.

So please don’t try to convince me that the Secondary Schools Football League is detrimental to our game. Please, don’t.

Over the last few years I’ve been afforded the opportunity to interact with some of the major stakeholders and decision makers in the game, regionally and globally. Regionally, particularly in the United States and Mexico, the approach can be summed up by the saying “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that phrase used over the last 18 months or so. The objective isn’t to gleam the cream off the top, but to raise the standard of the game at every level. By doing so, those at the top would ultimately benefit most.

And let’s be honest here, taking the best players out of the league would effectively kill the SSFL, and with it the opportunity for those players who may not be deemed good enough or do not want to play at a Pro League academy. At 16 or 17, I would’ve fallen into one of those two categories.

Apart from which, why is the SSFL to blame when “we have boys who should be fighting for a place in W Connection or Central’s first team at 17, 18 or 19 choosing to play school’s football?”

There are any number of people you can castigate for that: the TT Pro League, the clubs, their academies, the coaches, the player, the player’s parents, look you can blame Brer Anancy for all I care. But you surely can’t blame and consequently punish the SSFL for giving a player an opportunity that he enjoys.

Through all the talk and suggestion about what or who is at fault for our recent failings and how it should be addressed, I believe it is high time that we have an honest and earnest discussion about our football. We need to define our footballing identity and let that be the foundation on which all of our game is built. We have to get away from this four-year shifting of focus, that merely reflects who won the last World Cup. (We aren’t the only ones guilty of this by any means).

After 1998 when France won, there were calls for a Bloemfontein-esque national football academy. Then in 2002, we needed to play more beach soccer and futsal—a game I’m a huge fan of as a development tool, but that’s for another day—like the Brazilians do.

After 2006, we needed to be better defensively and tactically just like the Italians. In 2010, we needed more tikki-takka (more on Spain in a minute) as Spain rewrote the way the game was supposed to be played. And now we have to be more disciplined, just like the Germans.

When and where will this nonsense stop?

I read somewhere that, late in the last century, Spain’s footballing minds sat down to have a look at their consistent failings and how it should be addressed. They admitted that they’d never be able to match the likes of the Germans and the English in a physical game. Their fans didn’t want to see them playing defensively like the Italians, even if it meant winning 1-0. But they knew they were very good technically.

The resulting philosophy was simple, if we had the ball the opposition didn’t, they couldn’t hurt us and we’d dictate the game for the most part. And so tikki-takka was born.

They then set out to certify as many coaches as possible, at every level—Spain has more certified coaches than almost anyone—so that everyone, from the bottom to the top, understood the philosophy.

Yes, they were buoyed by Barcelona playing similarly, and the success that they had. And, yes, the style may vary slightly depending on the personnel or the coach. And, yes, you may criticize tikki-takka itself. But what you cannot question is the success that having a clear national footballing identity has brought to the Spanish national team.

Back in the early 2000s, I met with the newly appointed Minister of Sport, Roger Boynes—I really can’t remember what was the intended nature of the meeting—as it happened, the soon-to-be Minister of Sport Anil Roberts was also present. The TT Pro League was still in its infancy.

I suggested that the approach of the league could better benefit all of our football. I felt, and still do, that clubs should align themselves with schools in their region. The clubs would have first ‘dibs’ on the players coming out of those schools, that’d ensure a natural progression of the talent coming out of the SSFL.

Probably more importantly, given the crowds at Pro League games, there’d also be a natural progression of the fan base—the SSFL was well supported back then.

The Pro League club would also be responsible for sending coaches to oversee and assist in the coaching of the school teams, ensuring that all the players were exposed to the professionalism it takes to earn a living playing the game, the best players were well educated in the club’s philosophy and the club’s young and upcoming coaches were given an opportunity to gain valuable experience.

The investment and benefit would be mutual without affecting either’s autonomy.

As luck would have it—and, yes, I’m fully aware of how politicized our football has become—there is a TTFA Presidential election and a general election coming up this year. Regardless of their outcomes, whoever wins will have the minimum security of a four-year term to properly address the game.

It’s high time to get all our game’s stakeholders—the TTFA, TT Pro League, SSFL, Primary Schools Football league, Ministry of Sport, Ministry of Education, coaches and commercial partners—to define our own footballing identity.

How can we lift all boats? Let that be our New Year’s resolution for 2016.

Progress, after all, is not a zero-sum game.