Ask any Finnish football fan how to improve the game here, and the chances are they will at some point mention young players. You may well be told that they need to be given more playing time at earlier ages, to have better and more professional coaches and that they could, if the conditions are right, form a new wave of young talent.
It is an understandable viewpoint. People put their hopes and dreams into younger players, they act as an indicator of the possible brighter tomorrow no matter how grim the current situation is at senior level. But what if the system is more broken than that? What if the legions of Finnish players languishing in foreign clubs’ reserve sides indicate a fundamental problem in the youth football system?
This has been nagging at me for a few weeks now, but my thoughts were crystallised when I got a new perspective from a fairly unlikely source: an opera singer.
Cristina Andersson isn’t just an opera singer. She’s also a business coach and a successful entrepreneur in her own right. She’s written several books, and has the ear of a fair number of Finland’s most influential movers and shakers. A few weeks ago she asked how she might approach a task she hadn’t attempted before: giving a pep talk to parents at a junior football club.
It’s always difficult to manage parents’ expectations of their offspring’s involvement in football. Over the last few years I’ve spoken to coaches that curse and swear about parental interference, that ban Mums and Dads from talking during games, I even met one English academy head who claimed that, in an ideal world, he would recruit only orphans.
Cristina’s question focused on her immediate task. A club had asked her to intervene in this dynamic to convince parents of the importance of coaching, and to ensure that players remained committed and fewer complaints came from the frustrated fathers.
This is a delicate issue in Finland, given that junior clubs are almost entirely parent-funded. Even the biggest and most productive junior organisations in Finland charge their players to play, and the costs easily run into thousands of euros a year. This came as a bit of a surprise to Cristina, who has a knack of articulating problems succinctly in business-focused language.
”So the parents are the customers,” was her verdict, after I’d outlined the structure.
That’s it, really. Coaches are paid by parents and therefore have to keep them happy. Otherwise the money stops flowing and the system breaks down. Being British, I had previously seen this problem in class terms, viewing the potential financial barriers of entry to working class players as a manifestation of social exclusion, but Cristina’s language is perhaps a better way to describe the issue.
That dynamic allows young players to treat football as a hobby for far longer than in other European countries. The power relations at play were obvious in 2010 when Johannes Westö, a skillful 19-year-old winger in HJK’s championship-winning side, who seemed on the brink of a breakthrough to the big time, decided to take a year out before going to Helsinki University to study philosophy.
Everybody agreed that this was an excellent decision, the best course of action for the player concerned. Nobody stopped to ask how it was possible for somebody to reach such a high level of competition–to become an integral part of the best club side in the country–without ever really deciding to make football his profession. He had always played as a hobby, had presumably paid for the privilege until he got his first professional contract, and had little if any obligation to the coaches and club that had trained him.
This year he returned to football, playing for Someron Voima in the fourth tier of Finland’s pyramid.
In many ways it is a very healthy system, one that gives young players lots of options and produces well-balanced individuals, but it is worth pointing out to Finnish readers that this model is incredibly rare.
In most countries professional clubs run junior sections as a training programme to produce footballers, which means that the ‘customer’ is the professional game itself. The club funds the junior setup and is totally free to discard any player when a better or more committed prospect comes along.
There usually exists below that a network of highly competitive junior clubs, but they are not part of the professional game and their costs are kept low to ensure they are not a huge burden on parents or sponsors. Finland is currently trying to create a system of elite coaching based on parental contributions, and in doing so risks amalgamating the worst of all possible worlds.
As costs rise the pool of potential players reduces, making successful talent identification more difficult. The city of Helsinki’s Nuoret Helsingissä (Young people in Helsinki) report found that in 2011 fully 28 percent of 14-18-year-olds in the capital from well-off families had given up a hobby. The figure for those from less wealthy families was 46%.
This is not a problem that will be evident to clubs until much later. So long as somebody fills the expensive spots, the financial model will work, even if the standard of play and training is not as high as it would otherwise have been. It is also worth remembering that pride will prevent many children and parents from saying directly ‘we cannot afford this’–they are more likely to offer another excuse if and when the club asks.
But consider this: a year playing football for one provincial, 10-year-old girls’ team I am aware of will cost 2,000 euros next year. In 2011 the median Finnish salary was 2,776 euros, which after tax, pension and social security contributions is likely to give net pay of around 2,000 euros. Can families spare a whole month’s wages for one child’s hobby?
With a wave of redundancies hitting Finland this year, it is unlikely parents will have more spare cash to spend on their children’s pastimes in the near future. Sporting activities can easily be cut when pressure shows in household budgets.
So helping players to remain active in clubs, and reducing or removing cost as a barrier to entry in competitive sports, should be a top priority for Finnish sport. The challenge for Finnish football clubs is to fund youth development to ensure higher standards, a wider pool of available players and a more successful national team. If they can manage that, they can create a more professional, committed and competitive Finnish game.
They can transform Finnish football coaches from service providers to young people looking for a hobby, who perhaps treat the game as a nice pastime rather than a potential career, into educators of a new generation of professional Finnish footballers. In Cristina Andersson’s terms, they need to change their customer base from parents and young people to professional clubs in Finland and abroad. It is not going to be easy, but the first club that manages it will have a huge advantage over their peers.