Thursday, January 10, 2013
One sight above all others troubled me deeply from this week’s glittering Fifa awards ceremony in Zurich. No, it wasn’t Lionel Messi’s polka dot-inspired suit, which admittedly was an assault on the sartorial senses, as the Barcelona genius picked up a fourth consecutive Ballon d’Or prize to underline his status as the greatest in the modern era.
Rather it was the picture of Messi and 10 of his contemporaries in the team to top all fantasy teams following their nominations to the Fifa/Fifpro World XI, which was unveiled at the same bash.
A popularity contest with a fair degree of substance, given each position in this mythical star-studded side was voted on by more than 50,000 professional players from around the globe.
The disturbing factor for those who love the game on these shores was La Liga’s monopoly. Every member of Messi’s rat pack was either a Spain international or, in the likes of Real Madrid’s Pepe and Cristiano Ronaldo, Barca’s Dani Alves and Atletico Madrid’s Falcao, owed the Spanish league for their living.
A more emphatic illustration of why the ‘Spanish Way’ is the dominant mood music embellishing the beautiful game you could not wish to see.
No other continental league could collectively produce between them just one player to break this Iberian cartel. Debates on who has the best European league will continue to rage. Answers depends largely on the criteria.
Norwich City is part of the most globally watched, richest, most marketable club league on the planet. But La Liga remains the crucible; the haven for technical proficiency and individual artistry.
Spain’s senior stars have dominated internationally for the past three tournaments. Barcelona ceded their European crown to Chelsea’s functionaries last season, but few would bet against them or bitter rivals Real Madrid prevailing again when the Champions League re-emerges from its winter hibernation.
Which is a depressing prospect for English football; both domestically and on the international stage. All the empirical evidence from recent times suggests we lag a long way behind the current world leader.
The only way to bridge such a chasm is a widespread commitment at all levels of the game to support better coaching systems to develop future generations of talent equipped with the technical gifts to supplement the physical athleticism we attach such significance to.
Spain underwent a similar revolution in their coaching philosophies two decades ago and they continue to reap the rewards.
The FA’s St George’s Park will hopefully emerge as a bastion of best practice in time, under the guidance of key strategic appointments like Norfolk’s Dan Ashworth as technical director when he leaves his current post with West Brom.
But as so often in the history of English football, it is the clubs who must lead the way forward. City’s recently awarded Category One status for their proposed new academy structure, under proposals set out by the Premier League, is not just an abstract concept; it is essential to compete with our European rivals on a level-playing field.
The professional contracts awarded last week to Jacob and Josh Murphy need to become the norm, not a cyclical anomaly.
Norwich’s hierarchy have pledged to commit resources to develop not only the coaching but the infrastructural requirements at Colney to meet such an ambitious project. City will logically expect a pay back in terms of home-produced fresh talent.
That is not an optional extra to the work of Chris Hughton and his coaching staff. It is a pre-requisite for sustainability. Norwich need to be at the vanguard of youth development because they will never be in a position to pay the vast bloated sums generated at the top end of the transfer market. Or compete with those billionaire-owned rivals when it comes to salaries.
Pragmatism lies at the heart of the Canaries’ faith in youth, but it is not just Norwich City who will benefit in the long run. The English game for too long has been guilty of introspection; of an insularity in its collective approach.
Quality imports like Juan Mata or Sergio Aguero continue a rich tradition dating back to the inception of the Premier League product, but to drive standards up over these coming years will require essential maintenance work far below the apex at junior levels.
Otherwise, English football and our own domestic talent will forever be on the outside looking in whilst the party remains in full swing.