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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Role of Luck In Football

Learn from others: six interviews with six coaches who talk about their blueprint for football in 'Blueprint According To...'.

Apart from Blueprint for Football, over the past few weeks I’ve been working on another writing project that looks at the stories from Italian football (if you’re interested in learning more about that, check this out).  In doing the research for that I read up quite a bit about Zdenek Zeman, a man who today is often spoken about in almost romantic terms by his admirers for the carefree football he advocates.

His critics, on the other point to his inability to build balanced teams which is why he failed to achieve any success when put in charge of big teams.

There is truth in both points of view but my sympathies lie more with the first one: Zeman was a visionary whose intense pressing game was ahead of its time by a couple of decades.

That, however, is not the point of this piece but rather the players in the team with which he rose to fame: Foggia.

As a small provincial side they had neither the finances nor the desire to attract big names and instead went through the lower leagues looking for players with potential to grow.  Many, if not most, clubs in their position do that but the big difference for Foggia is that they had a manager who could actually make these talents better.

Perhaps the most obvious example is that of Beppe Signori.  The season before Foggia signed him he had scored five goals.  Since making his senior debut five years earlier he had scored fifteen goals.   In his first meeting with Zeman, the Czech manager welcomed him by calling him ‘bomber’ (word used by Italians to refer to prolific scorers).  It was a welcome that surprised Signori because the last thing the thought of himself was of a ‘bomber’.

Yet in his first season with Foggia he scored fourteen goals and went on to become of the greatest Italian strikers of all time.  Zeman had seen in him an ability that not even the player himself was certain of.  More importantly, he gave him the coaching and confidence to allow that ability to flourish.

Signori wasn’t the only one.  Before Foggia, Zeman spent a season with Messina where a then unknown striker by the name of Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci scored 23 goals which brought him to the attention of Juventus.  A year later he would be Italy’s saviour and top-scorer at the World Cup.  Then there were Roberto Rambaudi and Francesco Baiano, two forwards who were playing in the lower leagues but who went to have very successful careers in the top flight – Baiano even did pretty well in England with Derby County – with both playing for Italy.

That development of players is something that Zeman has done well throughout his career.  What always strikes me when I see such stories is the question over what would have happened if these players hadn’t signed for his teams.  Would they have been any less talented?  Was it the coaching that made the difference and pushed them up a level?  Or was it just a big stroke of fortune on their part that they came across a manager who was willing to give them a chance and a system that made their abilities shine?

My belief tends to be towards the latter.  Players need coaches who believe in their talent, who coach them well and who give them opportunities to improve.  It sounds obvious but in truth how many players fail to do that?  How many move to a big club, their eyes blinded by the lights and the big wages, only to see their career stall due to not playing?

In most walks of life, people just out of school accept jobs that don’t pay too well but which allow them to learn and gain the experience.  People plot their careers, choosing carefully which company to join based on the opportunities that it might open up.  They’re mindful of not taking dead-end jobs which might pay a bit more but leave them with no prospects.

Not in football, however.  As soon as a player starts making enough of an impression to attract bigger clubs, then you can almost guarantee that they’ll be off.  Sadly many times there are agents who are pushing them in that direction in order to get their cut with the players placing too much faith in them.

Ultimately, however, the players have to take responsibility.  There have been too many instances of others making a mistake for them to learn.  Looking through transfer rumours on any day, you’ll come across at least one where a young player is said to be attracting a big club.  And, if that interest is real, you can rest assured that in most cases that move will go through come the summer.

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