Posted by News Express | 26 May 2013 | 5,561 times
As a sportsman and writer, and as a spectator in the stands, I have come to be used to hearing and seeing young soccer players subjected to bitter criticisms over their conduct on and off the pitch. Sadly, in many cases criticisms stray beyond the boundaries of common sense, and can have negative ramifications for the players and for the beautiful game.
Some sad episodes spring to my mind: That of a young player being physically assaulted and abandoned to trek home by a coach after a lost match in Benin City; the case, in my local Upper Sakpoba neighbourhood, of spectators hurling the most offensive of words on a soccer kid after they felt let down by his indecision with the ball, which resulted in their favourite team conceding a dying minute goal; and that of an entire bunch of players on trials in a Nigerian division one club in Ogbomosho sent packing after one of them blundered by giving away a penalty which made them lose a trial game.
Unfortunately, the habit of excessive and dangerous criticisms of footballers continue today, and can be discerned in the calls in some quarters for the exclusion of Chidiebere Nwakali from the Golden Eaglets’ World Cup squad on the basis of his horrible penalty miss in the final match of the African Under-17 Nations Cup which gifted Cote D’Ivoire the cup.
Truly, Nwakali hit a very poor, effete kick. His positioning on his way to shoot, being so unconventionally close to the ball, told of the lad’s cockiness. I found my surprised lips expressing disbelief about the quality of the penalty, and I think that fans are well within their rights to feel disappointed by that error. But demanding that the player be dropped in order to (if you would permit me to quote an angry phrase that arrived at my ears) “teach him a lesson on not playing carelessly” is an undignified thing to canvass against a young boy who was a key part of an impressive run of the Nigerian team at the Under-17 tournament.
If Nwakali is left out of the World Cup squad (I believe common sense would prevail, and he won’t be) it will surely teach some lessons to other young players, but that would likely include the kind of lessons that we will not like them to learn. It could most certainly send the message to others that making mistakes in the field is not tolerated and could be swiftly and severely punished. The consequence of this would be players with stifled creative urges. What we could end up with would be a mass of timid soccer players too scared to try different things for fear of not being given the sack.
Who would want the draining experience of watching robotic players devoid of the individual, impulsive urges that make football worth the match ticket, or the viewing centre charge? Who would want to see a team of players too scared to dribble, for fear of missing a trick, and therefore resort to the long ball and kick-and-follow routine?
I remember clearly a disconcerting experience I had some years ago when I started trying my hand at coaching a group of young footballers in Benin City. We were notching up wins in matches while earning praise for playing nice-passing football. But there was a day I got angry at one of my most talented players who executed the wrong tactics in a match (costing us victory). I expressed my displeasure quite harshly. He was downcast in the dressing room, tears welling up in his eyes. The effect was telling as in subsequent games, not only did he become uncharacteristically unexpressive and tentative in the pitch, afraid to commit errors and therefore lose his place in the team, the rest of the lads began to lose their flair as well and our play was threatening to become too stiff and boring for me. Everyone was wary of being similarly harshly criticised.
Noticing this ugly trend, I had to speak individually with all the players, emphasising how talented they were, and urging them to play freely and inventively. The result was a team of renewed self-belief, and the flair and expression returned, as well as match wins.
Football genius flourishes in environments where players are not quickly punished too harshly for their every act of error, and for this reason we should not over criticise Nwakali by calling for his exclusion from the Under-17 World Cup squad no matter how disappointed we are about his penalty miss. If the Ivorian goalie had flung himself completely the wrong way, we would have hailed the bravery and audacity of Nwakali’s penalty kick.
•Dafe (shown in photo) is a freelance journalist and grassroots football coach based in Benin City.
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