What happens when what was supposed to be a child’s game turns into a ruthless business that takes all the fun out of the game in the first place?
That’s the question that Ireland’s youth football leagues now face.
The country’s youth football programs have increasingly turned to a policy where any young footballers who show any level of talent are automatically funneled into nationally-organized youth soccer leagues, and those young athletes who fail to adhere and thrive in the highly-regimented program are being discarded, without any regards for their long-term development (or overall love of the game).
Many have described this as a trend of “football elitism,” and worry that it could be ruining the country’s ability to cultivate players who can compete at the highest levels of international competition.
It’s a two-pronged problem, to be sure. Worldwide, we already face an epidemic of children staying indoors for longer and longer periods of time, spending hours upon hours playing video games, wasting time on their iPads, and chatting away with their friends via their smartphones, all at the cost of actually spending time and interacting with others outdoors. That, of course, includes playing sports like football.
From there, any young athlete who shows even a modicum of talent is quickly plucked out of any level of amateur or schoolyard play, and put into a program where they’re supposed to become the next great player for any League of Ireland club.
Conceptually, it makes sense that the best and most talented youths would be funneled towards the highest level of competition, in order to develop their talents at the highest levels.
This also affects the nature of inter-school competition. If the best students are being removed from their schooling responsibilities, that will obviously dilute the level of competition when any of the schools they would have attended play against each other.
Further, many of the nation’s best football players, including legends like Damien Duff, Robbie Keane, Johnny Giles, and Liam Brady, followed paths that weren’t as rigidly about sending amateurs straight into the professional ranks.
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While it’s a cliché statement, there’s a reason for it: people are different, and no two children will develop the same way. There are plenty of athletes in a myriad of sports who were “late bloomers;” in this scenario, these athletes would be turned away from the best institutions that could develop their talents, when they start to show.
Further, it’s actually creating a culture where children may begin to resent football; ironically, this is the direct antithesis of what the country was trying to accomplish in the first place. If a young athlete shows promise, but is quickly discarded because they fail to meet the level of competition they were essentially forced into, that’s going to create a situation where an otherwise-recognized talent will never receive the nurturing and encouragement they’re seeking. In fact, they’ve received the opposite.
If the country continues down this current path, while the amateur football leagues are thriving, we might live in a world where those individuals who could be the country’s next great footballer might be sitting on their television and watching a match just like the rest of us, because the rigid system of football development in the country ignored their talents too early in their lives.