Ideas on improving the Caribbean game

Here I suggest some ways in which Caribbean associations can lift the overall quality of their football and achieve more success in the future… 

For a while I’ve been thinking about how best Caribbean national teams and Caribbean football in general can improve. In this article I’ll suggest ways in which associations can, in my opinion, lift the overall quality of their respective programmes.

In a way, this article is the culmination of all my thoughts over the last few years. I’ve watched many matches and many players since starting the site in June 2012, so after nearly four years of following Caribbean football I felt it was time to list some ideas on how we can grow each CFU member (31 altogether) even more.

These are merely my own thoughts and by no means are they definitive or free from discussion. It can only be healthy to discuss the future of Caribbean football – what are the positives? where does there need to be improvement? Let’s share our ideas and encourage the debate.

Establish a philosophy

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Three important headings to consider when determining a philosophy. Inspired by the English FA’s ‘DNA Presentation’. (pic credit: The Coaching Family)

Caribbean associations must establish a clear philosophy: how do you want to be presented to the rest of the world? what do you want to achieve? how do you want to go about achieving your target(s)?  It’s important for associations to have a 5-10 year vision, otherwise years will pass and no tangible progress will be made. I look at a country like Anguilla and wonder what they are trying to achieve, both in the short-term and long-term? They could set a target of qualifying for the second round of Caribbean Cup qualification within the next three editions. This would give them something to work towards and subsequently drive the players forward – giving them an incentive to train harder and play harder.

In an interview with These Football Times in December last year, Cardiff City’s U-21 head coach Kevin Nicholson spoke about his three-part football philosophy: coaching, training and playing. The coaching strand is about how well you interact with colleagues and your ability to get the best out of certain situations. The training strand is about how well you prepare for a game and the relevant drills/sessions involved. The playing strand is about setting your team’s style and identity on the field. Can any coaches from Caribbean associations try to mirror this model and apply it to their own day-to-day routine?

Continuity through age groups

Curacao won the inaugural CFU U-15 tournament held in August last year. How many of these boys will continue to represent the seniors? (pic credit: CONCACAF’s official website)

To achieve continuity and familiarity throughout the various age groups, an association has to ensure everyone is on the same wavelength from top to bottom. One of the reasons Spain have been so successful over the last decade or so is because they possess a universal philosophy which runs all the way from grassroots to senior level. Players are gradually moved up the age categories and when they eventually line up for the senior side, they’re at home because they are accustomed to those around them and the style of play.

In my opinion the transition from youth team to senior team isn’t as smooth in the Caribbean. How many players that represent their country at U-15, 17, 20 level earn senior call-ups? Not that many. Too many fall by the wayside. How many countries employ the same formation at U-15, 17, 20 and senior level? Not that many. It takes time for players – especially younger ones – to learn new positions on the field. The same formation needs to be reproduced throughout every age rank so players know their job inside out. If a player is then swapped around from one age group to another, there is no problem because they each team plays the same way.

What this eventually does is creates a pathway for players. The senior team reaps the benefits because the squad is cohesive and on the same wavelength.

Scrap (or at least revamp) schoolboy football 

18-year-old Trinidadian winger Levi Garcia is one of several Caribbean youngsters currently playing in Europe. (pic credit: soccernews.nl)

In Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago they have schoolboy football to supplement their respective professional leagues, the Red Stripe Premier League and TT Pro League. Teenagers represent their schools and if they are deemed good enough, sign for a professional club too. Schoolboy football as constructed at the moment, however, isn’t conducive to youth development. In Jamaica, the schoolboy season runs from September to December before the club season (organised by parishes) begins. There aren’t sufficient matches or training sessions.

The gulf between the Caribbean and N/C American teams at youth level was highlighted at last year’s CONCACAF U-20 Championship. The likes of the US and Canada boasted players in Europe and their all-round development was far more advanced. Schoolboy football doesn’t adequately prepare youngsters for top level competition. Teenagers don’t receive enough game time, coaching tuition or exposure to quicker, higher tempo football. Caribbean youngsters will learn more playing overseas and recently we have witnessed a higher number moving to clubs based in Europe, where like it or not the best coaching and facilities are. Jamaican pair Leon Bailey and DeShane Beckford are with Genk (Belgium) and West Ham (England), Trinidadian Levi Garcia is with AZ Alkmaar (Holland) Caymanian Leighton Thomas Jr is with Yeovil Town (England) and Turks & Caicos Islander Mackenson Cadet is with Nottingham Forest (England).

If not completely abolished, the current schoolboy football system must be given an overhaul. Extending the length of seasons has to be top of the list. I recently interacted with Caribbean sports business professional Machel Turner on this very topic and you can read some of his thoughts on restructuring here.

Capitalize on stereotypical Caribbean attributes

Andrew Edwards is the head coach of Jamaica’s U-17s and a great thinker on Jamaican football. (pic credit: Sports Max TV)

If we were to look at the stereotypical traits of a Caribbean athlete, traditionally, they would be as follows.

  • Pace
  • Power
  • Athleticism

Head coach of the Jamaican U-17s, Andrew Edwards, is one of the most intelligent and articulate football thinkers in the Caribbean. He guided Jamaica to the CONCACAF U-17 Championship semi-finals last year when they lost to the US on penalties. In the aftermath of their elimination, Edwards explained his team’s philosophy and why he feels that modern football suits Jamaican players. His comments also apply to Caribbean players in general.

The Jamaican player is naturally athletic, fast and strong. Our culture and natural tendencies are not steeped in patience and gradual success. The modern game suits us quite well because it is being played at an increasingly fast pace. My limited global interactions and research, points to the Jamaican player being a natural prototype with the athletic profile of the footballer of the future (harder, faster, stronger – creating tomorrow’s footballer). In other words athletically the Jamaican player is advantageously placed to dominate the game the sooner we are able to add tactical acumen, fortitude and adeptness to his arsenal.”

What Edwards says is true. The natural physical and athletic attributes of many Jamaican and indeed Caribbean players go hand in hand with modern football performance. Games are being played at greater intensity – with less time to deliberate on and off the ball – and there’s now more focus on running distances than ever before. So the stereotypical Caribbean player possesses the necessary build and stamina to excel in the modern, high-octane style game.

In recent times counter-attacking football has tended to pay more dividends than possession football. We have seen in the English Premier League that teams which register higher possession stats aren’t winning as much as those which register less. This global trend suits the Caribbean player’s natural physical tendencies much more. Possessing speed and power creates a threat on the counter-attack (although decision-making is also key during this transition phase, which is touched upon under the next heading). Furthermore, pressing is talked about a lot in modern football tactics and for a successful press – done individually or more commonly collectively – short bursts of speed are needed.

But possessing the raw physical and athletic qualities alone aren’t enough. The player requires football intelligence, tactical awareness and positional sense. This comes naturally to some, but crucially it can be taught and developed. That’s where effective coaching comes into play.

Investment in coaching

Video credit: Jean Jimenez

Coaches and instructors play a huge role in shaping the development of football within the region. As ex-Turks & Caicos Islands technical director Craig Harrington said in August last year, “better coaching will inevitably lead to better football.” It is their job to communicate vital pieces of information that players need. If a player is athletically impressive then that’s great, but they may as well do track and field. The key is giving them the knowledge and skills to be effective on the football pitch. As Edwards mentions, being tactically astute is just as significant as being able to run around at a fast pace a lot. Improving the player’s footballing attributes relative to their position on the field (handling for a goalkeeper, heading for a defender, passing for a midfielder, shooting for a striker) is important. So too is educating them on the role of their position, when to press and when to drop deep.

What was so eye-catching about Edwards’ Jamaican side at the U-17 tournament last year was that they were able to blend their innate pace and power with footballing intelligence and technical quality. They had some very talented individuals who performed excellently within the collective context of the team. That was best highlighted against Trinidad & Tobago in Group A, when they ran out convincing 5-1 winners in San Pedro Sula. Edwards had struck a terrific balance and the Reggae Boyz were extremely unfortunate not to qualify for the World Cup.

There are regular CONCACAF “D” License Coaching Courses being conducted around the islands. The “D” License was launched in August 2013 under Jeffrey Webb’s stewardship. It is the first step into a structured coaching pathway for aspiring Caribbean coaches. Before that the confederation had no official coaching qualification. Therefore coaches were forced to look elsewhere – usually Europe – to gain a recognized coaching certificate. For the “D” License, the participants take on board the basics before completing a practical exam at the end of the four days. Lenny Lake (St Kitts & Nevis FA), Ces Podd (St Lucia FA) and Etienne Siliee (Curacao FA) among others are the Course technical instructors. They take charge of the sessions and pass on information to students.

In November last year, the British Virgin Islands FA introduced the “Raising Standards” Programme in an attempt to lift their level of coaching. That was a step in the right direction. There are some good Caribbean coaches around, such as Wayne Dover (Guyana), Andrew Bascome (Bermuda), Kendale Mercury (St Vincent & the Grenadines) and the aforementioned Edwards. Yet the coaching landscape can certainly look better. For sure, CONCACAF requires more than just one Coaching Course. We are over two years on from the “D” License launch so another, more challenging level is definitely needed. The more coaches the better, but we have to ensure that these qualified coaches are properly put through their paces so not just anybody off the street can earn a badge. We also have to ensure that there are opportunities available to qualified coaches who want to make a contribution.

Look at Iceland, a country with just under 350,000 inhabitants. They are going to be playing at this summer’s European Championship for the first time in their history. And raising the level of coaching proved a major contributing factor to their qualifying success.

The Caribbean does need more qualified coaches and I think CONCACAF are doing a decent job at spreading the “D” License. What the new CONCACAF boss (elections to be held 13 May) should be looking to do is increase the number of certificates available.

Individualism

There’s a perception that in Caribbean football culture individualism prevails. That the attention is more on the individual capabilities of a particular player rather than the overall collective performance of the team.

Video credit: KickTV

A game such as scrimmage – closely associated with Jamaica but also played on various other Caribbean islands – helps to encourage this idea of individualism. Scrimmage is an informal form of football, using a small-sized pitch and small-sized goals (typically two or three footsteps in length), which is a popular pastime throughout the Caribbean. The overriding focus in this game is who can beat as many players as possible in reduced spaces, using skill, trickery and innovation, and not how well the team performs collectively or how many goals are scored.

It is believed by some that scrimmage, as argued by Christoper A.D. Charles in the book ‘Perspectives on Caribbean Football‘, is damaging work ethic and team cohesion and promoting selfish and lazy play. Below is an extract from Charles’ book.

As played in the Caribbean, scrimmage is about passing the opponents. If players lose the ball they walk towards the ball or stay where they are rather than get behind the ball to help defend against their opponents. This attitude is evident in how some national teams play. Players play for themselves as individuals rather than the team which gets shafted. The ethos and culture derived from scrimmage football does not encourage team play or team chemistry.”

Now, I’m not saying possessing individual quality and skill on the ball is a negative thing. Because it isn’t. But the ideal scenario would be to incorporate individualism into a collective context – in other words, maximize the individual assets of a player but within a united team structure. That way you get the natural Caribbean colour, flair and creativity as well as a solid backbone and shape meaning the opposition finds it harder to find a way through. The Brazilian coach René Simões was able to strike this balance with Jamaica when they qualified for the World Cup in 1998. He allowed the more creative individuals like Ricardo Gardner and Deon Burton to express themselves whilst making the team compact and disciplined. The Dutchman Leo Beenhakker did the same with Trinidad & Tobago when they also qualified for the World Cup in 2006.

Teaching players during their early development years about the importance of knowing their role(s) within a team while retaining their creativity and flair is crucial. The combination is highly effective as we have witnessed in the past. As the great Johan Cruyff once said: “The individual has the quality. Everybody’s different, everybody has a different quality, but you should’ve the same mentality. It means you’ve got to put your quality into the value of the team itself. Because, in the end, the best player will never come out of a team who loses too much. It’s impossible.”

Managerial stability

Managerial stability is a key part of maintaining the philosophy that you’ve established. Appoint a manager that fits your ideals, stay patient, offer support and allow the results to come. Granted, football works in cycles and sometimes transitional periods result in somebody leaving for somebody else. But the past has generally shown that sticking with the same manager for a sustainable period of time pays off.

Let’s take Jamaican senior team boss Winfried Schafer as an example. Hired in 2013, he has been given several years to implement his philosophy. In 2014, they won the Caribbean Cup title. In 2015, they appeared at the Copa America and gave a real good account of themselves (losing each group game 1-0 vs Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina) and they finished Gold Cup runners-up a month later. They became the first Caribbean nation to reach the competition’s final. Now they find themselves in the penultimate round of World Cup qualification (WCQ). Schafer has taken advantage of the Jamaican diaspora in the UK, bringing in the likes of Wes Morgan, Michael Hector and Giles Barnes. He’s been backed by the Jamaican FA – allowed to experiment with players in friendlies against France, Switzerland, Egypt – and the squad looks the most balanced it has been in years.

Bascome has been in charge of Bermuda for nearly four years and in that time they’ve demonstrated solid progress. In WCQ in June last year, the Gombey Warriors drew 0-0 away to Central American heavyweights Guatemala and lost by just one goal in the return leg. Bascome has brought through youngsters such as Zeiko Lewis, Justin Donawa and Rai Simons and the latter now represents Chesterfield in England.

Firing managers when the going gets tough isn’t always necessarily the answer. Staying patient and providing support are central to reaching the target(s) set.

By Nathan Carr

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Thank you for reading! Feel free to leave any constructive feedback in the comments box below. Meanwhile, you can get in touch with me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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3 thoughts on “Ideas on improving the Caribbean game

  1. What an awesome post, interesting the wyas in which you see the Caribbean football, maybe some of your points could make a transition in football and some caribbean football managers and confederations could apply for it.

    Greetings from Mexico

    Lenin

  2. Great read! Read this from top to bottom and agreed with every point! The best part is that I implement this type of thought and culture into my own teams. Definitely the way to move island football forward. Good work

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