Spanish football is constantly seen as a model for success in player development. Regular PDP Contributor & Founder of TOVO Institute, Todd Beane examines what elements of Spanish culture and football contribute to their consistent success in developing top players.

Why Spain?

“The ball is an essential part of the game.” – Johan Cruijff

Take this quiz.

Why does Spain produce such skillful footballers?

A. They watch quality football every weekend.
B. Club loyalty is a family tradition.
C. Children are comfortable on the ball.
D. All of the above.

If you answered “D” you would be correct.

But if you live in Spain like I do, you would be drawn to option “C” as the answer that differentiates Spanish youth football from many other great footballing nations in Europe and beyond.

The match is on.

My eight-year old son plays the ball back to Rupert who sits in the central defending position and attempts to build out of the back. On this occasion, Rupert makes an ill-advised pass that is promptly intercepted by the opponent. Within seconds the ball in in the back of the net, a tally for the opposing team.

Silence. A good silence.

Not the type of critical “what the heck have you just done” silence. Not the screaming at a child who made a mistake violation of silence. Just the type of silence that requires bringing the ball to the center circle and giving it another go. Reset. Restart.

Get on with it silence. A productive silence.

Growing up, I would not have had the luxury of a supportive silence. In fact, I would have been told to “boot it” as coaches and parents feared the worst. Better to boot it than to have what happened to Rupert unfold. Makes sense, no? Why take risks? Why possess the ball when we can deliver that problem to the other team by knocking it deep and pressuring the eight-year-olds on the other side of the pitch. Long ball equates to low risk type of approach.

“They were required to orient their first touch toward distributing the ball with their second.”

This is why Catalonia and Spain produce quality players. Because last Saturday around the country players were encouraged to play the best option and to find a supporting player. They were asked to use their brains, not their brawn, to solve the challenges presented in a match. They were required to orient their first touch toward distributing the ball with their second. They were encouraged to play football in a manner that will yield a certain type of footballer, one that is comfortable on the ball. They were becoming option “C”.

Perhaps a bit of history might help.

With the arrival of Johan Cruijff to Barcelona as coach in the late 1980s, all football hell broke loose. Old paradigms of how the game should be played were replaced with a vision as to how the game could be played. Crazy stuff at the time:

  • Goalkeepers off their line.
  • Defenders who participated in attack.
  • Precision passing within diagonals and triangles.
  • Small footballers – more skillful and intelligent than physical.

During this football revolution victories started accumulating. Johan Cruijff was, and still is, the only FC Barcelona coach in the history of the club to win four consecutive La Liga titles. And he did so playing the most attractive and attacking football on the planet at the time. They call his 1992 Champions League and La Liga Champions the “Dream Team” even today. They gave up some goals in the process, but they scored a lot more and it was a festive and spectacular era at Camp Nou.

So why does that matter to me as a father of an eight-year-old boy playing at a modest club in a seaside village in 2016?

Because thanks to my eight-year-old son’s grandfather, Johan Cruijff, I can eat my chocolate croissant in peace and watch the boys play a type of football that encourages cognitive development. I can watch my son, who is the smallest in his class, play the game and not be left on the bench until he grows bigger and stronger.

“Valuing intelligent and creative play over physical domination, young players throughout Spain can mature into something special”

Thanks to valuing intelligent and creative play over physical domination, young players throughout Spain can mature into something special within the global fabric of football. Players like Xavi, Messi and Iniesta can delight us. And my son can see himself in them. He understands that here in Spain a small creative player with subtle touch and vision has a chance to enjoy his football.

And I can enjoy watching him play.

Those of you shaking your head saying that it cannot be done elsewhere are making excuses or not committed like the Catalans are to developing this type of player. Look what Germany did in restructuring its definition of a World Cup-winning team. Look at Belgium and their latest generation of talent. Look at some of the stars of many countries that will run their midfield in the European Championship this summer.

“Football is played with the head and executed by the feet.” – Johan Cruijff

There is a premium on talent. A premium on problem solving. A premium on a quality first touch.

In Catalonia you can travel to every town of this beautiful part of the world and find players playing quality football. They may occasionally pass the ball to the opponent and have to dig the ball out of their own net, but that is part of a learning process. Most coaches here know that and allow for development to be a little less than perfect at times.

I will drive my son to training today and he will learn to be comfortable on the ball under pressure. I will listen to stories of the school patio pick-ups where he was experimenting and trying to beat his opponent with skill and intelligence.

I will not watch him “boot it” or panic the ball away. I will watch him treasure the ball. And when he goes to sleep he can remember that his grandfather changed football for every boy who wants to possess the ball and do remarkable things with it.

“Without the ball you can’t win.” – Johan Cruijff

Cover Image: 

Kids play street football in Spain. Photo: Dani Vázquez

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