Young Oly-Whites players must lose to win
It wasn't pretty was it?
The 1-1 draw our Olympic football team (I refuse to call them the "Oly Whites" on the grounds that the name is almost as naff as "Oly Roos") had with Japan this week was like taking a trip in a time machine, back to when our national teams were forced to play a grim defensive game, powered by our so-called Kiwi grit, against technically superior opponents and hope for a goal from a set piece.
The 2010 World Cup suggested the Kiwi game had taken a quantum leap forward, as the All Whites had a reasonable share of possession on the way to three meritorious draws.
But last Wednesday, the Japanese showed up the technical shortcomings of our up-and-comers big time, and but for their own poor finishing, would have led by more than one goal. The Olympic team's late equaliser papered over the cracks, but coach Neil Emblen wasn't fooled. He thankfully didn't go with "the boys showed excellent character" rubbish, instead emphasising that the team had been given a football lesson by Japan. There is, he said, a lot of work to be done before the Games start.
But how do you give players a life time of technique and skill training in two weeks? You can't, and that's why our boys might spend a lot of time without the ball at the Games. Yes, it's possible to get results against technically better opponents by being organised and disciplined, but it's an uphill fight. If we're to compete down the track against serious football nations, we need to upskill, and that starts with the kids.
And that, still, is the problem. Despite the "Whole of Football" plan launched by NZ Football, judging from the instructions bellowed by coaches and parents at soccer grounds every Saturday morning there's still a huge proportion of the public who emphasise winning, rather than fun and skills.
"Don't mess around with it, get rid of it!" is the all too common panicky shout.
Coaches and parents know that by whacking the ball downfield, the team gains territory they wouldn't make by dribbling or passing. If they tried that, they'd lose the ball, perhaps concede a goal and, horror of horrors, lose the game. Smack the ball down the other end and the other team might miss it and let you in for a goal. Yay, well done boys!
That thinking is more short sighted than a blindfolded bat. You won't win games like that for long. Once your opponents stop giving you goals, you'll need to be able to dribble and pass, but you won't be able to because you haven't worked on it.
Which brings us to our Olympic players, good by New Zealand standards, but technically well short of the Japanese. That's because the Kiwis have been told by coaches and parents to get rid of it, rather than to dribble it, turn with it, show off with it.
An Olympic ice-skater will fall over thousands of times learning a triple axel, so our kids should hear "good, you've lost the ball for the 10th time. You're one step closer to getting it right", not "bloody hell! You've lost it again!"
Contrary to what the anti-PC brigade think, the kids need to have fun, and to learn the skills.
It's going to take a radical change in Saturday behaviour. Coaches need to emphasise skills, not winning. And parents need to know the score of their eight-year-old's match will have zero effect on whether he or she is a good player at 16.
Billy Harris is a former All White.
Sunday Star Times