Welcome

Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Convince me, please.

I always prefer to be convinced by grand claims. So, in that vein I am going to beg those who support some notions to step up and do more than pontificate about something but give some convincing evidence that what they say makes real sense.

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First, uniformity of dress code for school children. Where in the world is the proof that this is essential to building a safe society? Saying that it fosters an environment of safety, decorum, decency and discipline (see Matthew Farley's article "The case for common dress code"), is a statement with no proof. Telling me that there has been a debate in the US and Australia on the issue and that educational practioners "asserted themselves as professionals" in upholding the merits of wearing uniforms does not make the case. While we may decry the way that some children choose to dress, I want to see the proof that making them wear their uniforms neatly is going to save society from a slide that, I believe, has its roots elsewhere.

Looking around the region, Jamaica is one country where you cannot barely find a school child who is not obliged to wear school uniform from infancy, and most wear them correctly (and it's basically the same for every elementary public school; differs a little for secondary schools, and has more range for private schools). What has that done to build a safe society rather than one that now tops the world's murder rate? Taking Trinidad as a case of a country following that slippery slope, where has the lack of uniform played a key role?

Looking around the world (see link), we see the USA, France, German, most of north and western Europe (no universal dress code, and often freedom of choice from kindergarten); Japan and much of south east Asia (almost unheard of that any child can go without the standard uniforms, and impeccably laid out); the UK (most schoolchildren wear uniforms; often specific to the school in terms of colours, etc. but clearly a uniform); countries in Africa (uniforms often one national standard). What has been the relevance of uniforms, other than helping to identify a school child, and creating an orderly look, and perhaps identifying where he/she attends school?

Enough of dressing up arguments like a chicken and thinking that this makes it taste good: if the chicken is spoiled with salmonella, putting little chef hats on the drumsticks will make it look nice but it will still make us sick. So, figure out properly the what and why of Barbados' social ills and deal with those. Making a "projection" that uniforms will "certainly go a long way toward minimizing the wave of hooliganism and rowdyism..." does not make it so.

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Second, where Barbados soccer stands in the world. My focus is on the poor soccer team. One person wrote in a local paper this week that we should blame the players for losing summarily to the US 8-0 away and then 1-0 at home (see Advocate report). Right, in the sense that the players played the game. But so wrong for not seeing that the players reflect their lack of ability to perform at the highest level, irrespective of what they do locally. The writer went on to say:

"Many times I have gone to see local club football and I see players executing great skill. They score with beautiful finishing moves that would make Pele proud but it's a different story when they get on an International Stage.

They don't play 'basic' football and its not like they lack that skill, they just don't do what needs to be done. Pass down the line ... pass the ball where the runner will be, not where he is ... when you get in range, score. I blame the players!"

Maybe some of the grass that one can smell off the pitch at one of the local soccer games was affecting the writer's perceptions. Context, my friend. Remember Cricket World Cup 2007? Those boys from Bermuda maybe looked good playing in Hamilton but even against one-time cricket minows, Sri Lanka, found that things are different at the highest international level. Sri Lanka whacked 321 runs in 50 overs, and poor Bermuda did well to score 78 all-out in just over 24 overs. The speed, precision, and physical demands of soccer at top international level is not anything like local football in Barbados, except when you watch it on TV. I remember the shock when I played my first university against an English professional team's reserves: the ball flew around like the winged object in Harry Potter's quidditch game. Everything we tried was anticipated; people moved and changed positions so fast. We had good one touch, but theirs was better. And they tackled so hard; when the goalie hit me he made sure that wherever the ball went I would be in no position to know or care. We were training two times a week and playing twice, but they trained five days a week and played twice. Our coach was a former player for Fulham and prepared us well, but we were just having to deal with a different level of play.

Barbados has some good soccer players, but too few of the highest quality. The skill level displayed in the local premier division is not far off the non-league/senior amateur level in Europe or the US. Only one national player, Emerson Boyce, is good enough to hold a regular place in a top foreign league (playing for Wigan Athletic in the English Premier League, and he did not play in the 8-0 rout); others who play abroad play in a variety of teams in lower level leagues. The US team has all of its first teamers either playing now in top leagues world wide (e.g., Benfica (Portugal), Fulham (England)), or having played on such teams, or playing for top teams in the US (e.g, Houston Dynamo, Los Angeles Galaxy, DC United). Organization and structure at the local level in Barbados is at best pitiful. Playing top level soccer on fields such as the YMCA is a joke; I played on better when I played Sunday football as a boy in England. For the national team, Bajan players were being dragged from left, right, out of barrels, even paying their way to come. No development program; no national trawl of talent; no training camps; no well developed schedule of warm-up games. Is there a need for coaching qualifications? In the US now at even the entry level for competitive soccer, it is virtually a must; it's not good enough or important to have played the game. You need to learn how to teach young players and also how to teach and manage adult players. The US has put all of these things in place, and specifically for their World Cup qulaification sought warm-up games that pit them against some of Europe's better teams.

The US soccer team was not long ago a soccer minnow but the national federation and communities have invested enormous sums of private and public money into soccer over the past 30 years, and it's the fastest growing sport in the country. Many top high school teams or under-18 teams would give the Barbados team a run for its money, not just with their play but also with their facilities; Barbados would struggle badly on both counts against most US top level college teams. So, you have a huge quality and facilities difference, and we wont talk about the numbers from which one can choose.

Jamaica and Trinidad managed to develop teams of players good enough to qualify for the World Cup finals. For a while, both countries had been getting players into US colleges and raising the level of their game through that route, and also through the US Major League Soccer teams. To make the step up they also went abroad to get top level national coaches (Holland's famed Leo Beenhaker for Trinidad, for example). From the World Cup stage they got more exposure on an international scale that opened the doors for many players to get offers to play in top leagues in Europe; now more than half of the Jamaican team has players holding down first team players in some of the world's top level teams. The standard has been raised enormously, and aspiring internationals now know to where the bar has been raised. So Barbados needs to look at what teams have done to raise the level of player ability, playing facilities, training, condition, etc. Kicking a ball around with skill is not the issue; it has to be done at a high level, with all the pressure that comes from doing it 90 minutes or more a game, 40 or more games a season; doing everything at high speed and with stronger challenges ALL THE TIME. It may look like the same game from a distance--though even then only a real fool and dreamer would believe that what he sees in Barbados is the same as what is played in Brazil. US coach, Bob Bradley, put it succinctly (see Sunday Sun report):

"When they do play overseas, you need to have more players who play with better clubs. I think when you have players who are playing with the better clubs and they are getting used to a good environment and winning, then when they may come back with the national team, that helps a great deal,"

So, keep letting local players wallow in the kind of morass that is local soccer and accept that it will be a miracle if they manage to improve. Build some decent facilities, train and develop players and coaches in some of the best environments abroad, create a local league structure that looks to develop the sport from its grass roots in schools, through to professional level, and you may have a chance to raise standards greatly. Don't do that? Then get used to constantly being pummeled. You don't have to be a rich country. Many African countries are deeply passionate about soccer and have put disproportionate sums into developing national stadiums, or got them built with foreign help. But using a cricket pitch for soccer matches is not the same thing as a proper soccer pitch, no matter how good the stadium and its other facilities, quoting Coach Bradley again:

"First of all, the stadium is excellent and it is nice. The pitch is excellent, except for obviously the wicket area. It is a cricket oval...That means that the centre of the pitch is very hard and the players have to be very careful in terms of their footing and that kind of thing. In all other ways, it is an excellent facility and the field was in very good shape,"

US professional teams learned over years that you could not just paint new lines on what was a baseball field and expect to see good soccer played, with the oddities of the area that was the pitcher's mound, and the sandy areas that were the running lanes between the bases. Try playing cricket on a field that is part grass and part sand. Make sense? It's a bit similar when you have to navigate the batting track.

Decades ago, African countries exploited their former colonial links and had players filter away to France and Belgium to play in the top leagues. The standards of the wealthier nations, such as Egypt and Morocco, became the standards of the whole continent, and it has developed a phenomenal regional tournament played every two years, that shows that in every corner of the continent the game has reached world class level. The African Nations Cup is now a shopping showcase for European clubs. Many of the countries are still mired in poverty, corruption and other social and economic problems, but they can play football! You have to put in a lot to hope to take out a little.

1 comment:

Boim Lebon said...

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