Before watering the grass, pull out the weeds

DTokar/Fotolia

DTokar/Fotolia

As I ponder my future in the beautiful game here in Australia, it has become glaringly obvious that I have to battle from the bottom.  What I have noticed – the more I work with the grassroots community – is a serious lack of culture in the game.  A distinctly Australian take on the game is one thing; not having a clue is another.  There are not enough ‘football’ people in the game.

Last Tuesday, I began FFA’s entry level officiating course, called a Level 5.  Most of the participants were 14-year-old boys with limited knowledge of the Laws of the Game but an insatiable interest in earning some weekend pocket-money.  I must admit, I was surprised.  It might sound a tad cliché but when I was a kid, I lived and breathed football.

During the course, I found myself shaking my head.  These young lads were referring to free-kicks as penalties, didn’t have a basic understanding of the offside rule and tragically, didn’t know the names of the famous players on the DVD, nicely produced by FIFA with visual examples from the 2002 World Cup in South Korea/Japan.

Having a chat with some of the boys at the end, I got a snapshot of the future and I wasn’t happy.  Perhaps, it’s a sign of the times; kids have way too many things to do and not enough time to master any of them.  One honest lad told me that he didn’t like watching football; he just liked playing with his mates and wanted to become a referee for ‘the money’.  I suppose $40 a match is good, you do a few and you’re loaded compared to your mates who just sit on the couch playing their PS3.

His Dad, who came to pick him up, was still dressed in his corporate suit minus the tie.  He proceeded to tell me that he was a coach of two local teams.  Like most coaches at the grassroots, they’re parents and are juggling parenthood, the workplace and football on a weekly basis.  I asked him if he had any coaching qualifications, I had a gut-feeling he didn’t, I was right.

So, the kids don’t know much about the game, the parents the same.  Surely, the officials do.  I expected a professional FFA-appointed presenter; I got a Johnny Farnham look-a-like with the voice of John Kosmina.  He too didn’t have a clue.  He didn’t know who Kevin Muscat played for, didn’t know Mark Shield (Australia’s most famous referee) had retired and told me that going into a tackle with two feet was allowed as long as you got the ball.  Really, Bob?

At the end of the first night, I sat in my car dumbfounded.  25 teenage boys, their parents and the presenter had left me thinking: is it any wonder why the game has so many problems at the top?  There are so many weeds covering the garden that I can’t see the grass anymore.  Bringing a cricket, swimming or rugby league culture into football just doesn’t gel.

The football fraternity is calling for better players, better coaching, better officiating yet what I experienced was nothing short of a Kath & Kim backyard barbeque.  Of course, not all courses are the same, not all demographics are the same, not all presenters are the same but I’ve felt this way for ever such a long time now.  It hasn’t changed since I was a kid playing for Georges River JSFC.

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it, football is different to other sports.  For football to succeed long-term in Australia, significant cultural change is needed spanning from parents to coaches, administrators and officials.  Get the grassroots right and we’ve got a serious chance of becoming a football nation.  At the moment, we’re not even close.

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