As the smallest country in FIFA’s current Top 50, geographically; Jamaica is punching above its weight. The lofty ranking comes on the back of their current run of form as well as convincing 2015 and 2017 Gold Cup performances. However, what’s really impressive is what the second smallest nation on that list has done. At just 30,689 square kilometres (11,849 square miles), Belgium is nearly three times the size of Jamaica, and ranked as the 136th smallest country in the world – compared to Jamaica’s 160th. But while we hang on the edge of the top 50 with a 47th rank, Belgium sits at the pinnacle as the number 1 team in the world. While size isn’t a direct factor in footballing ability as a nation, the law of averages suggests a bigger country and population is more likely to produce 11 to 25 world beaters to form a formidable team. And if Belgium; who’s just another speck on the map, can cultivate a group of players able to surpass the rest, obviously they must be doing something right. So then, what can Jamiaca learn from Belgium?
Jamaica has stuck by their 1998 model, where they qualified for the World Cup for the first time in their history and have attempted to replicate that success in every subsequent World Cup Qualifying campaign, but to no avail. Belgium on the other hand, made a watershed moment of their 1998 World Cup campaign and the turn of the century has since been synonymous with the starting point of Belgium’s ascent.
Admitting it is the first step as they say, so the natural course of action for Belgium was to get to the crux of the problem. After their failures at the ‘98 World Cup and the European Championship in 2000, they brought together some thirty coaches from all over the country and they deliberated a radical change in their football philosophy and culture. In order to revamp an entire football program, you either toss out the old and defunct parts and jump right in with the new stock; or you allow the old guard to see out their usefulness while building the replacements to step in at the opportune time. Belgium chose the latter and to that end looked into their youth development first.
In 2001, then Technical Director of the Belgian Football Federation, Michel Sablon – who spearheaded this revolution – began by assessing the existing structure. Going as far as filming 1500 youth games with the assistance of a local university. The specific findings of the intensive study of their youth and grassroots football showed, among other things, youth players were hardly getting enough touches of the ball which meant that, apart from the naturally gifted, no youth player was being developed to go on to be a world class player. Adding to those problems with their youth, the senior team played with little identity of their own, instead they simply played for the counter. Traditionally, smaller teams (rightly or wrongly) set up that way against most of their opponents, but there’s usually some idea behind it all, but not so in Belgium’s case back then. So, it was eventually concluded that the national team was playing a brand of flat, uninspiring football which was proving ineffective. The conveyor belt was failing.
Recognizing their own deficiencies, the collective examined the models used by their more successful neighbors, France and the Netherlands. The French mastered the art of replication; being able to churn out a myriad of young talent season after season, while Holland had an excellent infrastructure for development purposes; with Dutch players renowned for their technique and intelligence of the game. Consequently, they made a pivotal decision; all youth teams would play in a 4-3-3 formation in an attempt to hone those technical skills. In the system that was practically invented (or at least popularized) by the Dutch, the root aim of the Belgium federation was to develop the players’ dribbling and passing abilities; as well to develop a holistic appreciation for intelligent ball-playing footballBetween 1998 and 2002, a joint initiative with the government saw eight Topsport schools introduced. The aim was to provide the most talented players aged 14 to 18 with additional training to increase their chances of reaching the top. Those sessions – four mornings a week and two hours at a time – were coordinated by coaches that work for the federation. Belgium had set out to “develop a new type of player” – one of technical superiority, hence the decision to play a brand of football geared towards developing technical ability. They adapted Holland’s 4-3-3 formation for that reason. It required tremendous stamina, fluid movement and of course technical prowess. Players would need to conform to a role as opposed to a position and as such, they would be constantly moving around, which highlighted the need for footballing intelligence. This was in direct opposition to the defense-minded counterattacking emphasis of the Belgian playing style at the time. All of this meant that the selected players were receiving twice as much coaching as they did before. And the rewards were great. Thibaut Courtois, Dries Mertens, Kevin de Bruyne, Mousa Dembélé and Axel Witsel are just five players who came through a system that many of Belgium’s leading clubs have now replicated.
On the face of it, it might seem counterintuitive to want better results within the senior national program and then spend all this time and effort on youth programs. The issues Jamaica face are similar to what Belgium did in 1998, that is, the national team is playing a brand of flat, uninspiring football which is proving ineffective, the conveyor belt is failing, and for our part, we have insufficient succession planning as well.
There’s yet to be some kind of exhaustive research into what our youth players are lacking the most like what the Belgians did, so perhaps that’s a good start point for any real-life application of their blueprint. For this thought experiment though, we’re going to assume technicality isn’t our greatest weakness. With the ingrained love for flamboyance in our game – a poor man’s version of Samba football – we actually tend to have players who are naturally inclined and all too willing to take a player on. In addition, we like a “big switch” of play and looking for those (ill-advised) killer passes whenever we can. The aptitude then, is there; our problem is the attitude. Not specifically the way a player behaves and/or carries themselves, although that is half of the problem, but the attitude in question is the tactical awareness of players and indeed their ability to conform to those instructions.
A suggestion for a parallel to Belgium’s 4-3-3 is a 4-2-3-1 formation that all youth teams should play in. A formation is little more than formalities these days, with players and coaches being clever in their operations to try to unbalance their opponents. But this 4-2-3-1 should adhere to the positions set out as the strength of this formation is that the individual flair of players is not lost in this organized structure.
These tactics are the blueprint for the modern player in each position, and serve as the basis for the tactics employed in any team. If one of those youth players go on to play in a team that favours a back three, they would still need composure on the ball. Wingers may play for a coach who requires their effort on both sides of the game; forwards may need to hold up play instead of just being a target man and midfielders benefit from extra game time in a system where they can express themselves. This system would combine the unique flair that makes our players stand out with the more formalized nuances of tactical awareness.
Whether we stick with ideas in this thought experiment, or follow on from authentic studies, one recommendation should stand. There needs to be greater coordination between ISSA and the JFF. The interests of ISSA and their various sponsors is to create a high-level experience for fans and competitors alike in their competitions – they also assume responsibility for Boys and Girls Champs, Basketball, Cricket and most all other sports competitions played at the high school level; not just football. Which means Jamaica’s football governing body should be initiating action to work with ISSA. Belgium created their Topsport schools for advanced training of their young players, and that’s worked a treat for them. We can do the same.
Of course, chief among the changes needed, is a major paradigm shift in culture. Belgium was able to make such strides because they wanted to. The collective decided they wanted the change and worked towards making it happen, as a unit. It is difficult to see any meaningful collaboration the JFF has embarked on with another local body that has had any significant effect on Jamaica’s football fortunes. Even with the Horace Burrell Centre of Excellence, it mostly sits idle at the University of West Indies Bowl for apparently no reason other than for the rare photo op or tv feature. And what has that centre of “excellence” brought us? I see no difference from the mediocrity that exists virtually everywhere else. Imagine a conference like the one Belgium had, after their 1998 failure in Jamaica. It would probably involve rank and file members of the Jamaica Football Federation (whoever they are), heads of the individual parish associations, top level coaches that we have, and a slew of other technical personnel – but; will that actually ever happen?
I spent all this time drawing parallels between Belgium and Jamaica, but it’s an Irishman – playwright, Bernard Shaw – that sums it all up for me. If Jamaica learns nothing else from Belgium they should learn this, “progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”