In a two-part series, Shaun Mooney investigates the challenges that have confronted FFA in rolling out its football development plans. 

The challenge for FFA has in trying to achieve the outcomes its various plans, is that the number of possible permutations of outcomes is simply too great to be computed. To simply state that educating the football community, or a successful A-League, or a longer football season, will help Australia achieve its football goals; is to underestimate the complexity of what it takes to achieve any success.

Paul Ormerod, combines economics with biology to examine ‘Why Most Things Fail: And How to Avoid It’ in society, business, organisations and government; in the areas of decision making and planning, with the purpose of achieving specific targets:

“The human ability to act with purpose and intent seems not to imply in any way that the actual outcome will be the desired one.”

Like Harford, Ormerod also examined the failure of the planned market economy of the Soviet Union, but offers a different conclusion. At the initial stages, it all seemed to be working with goals defined by successive five-year plans, and supported by a single party government system that was determined to see it succeed. Dissent was suppressed. Everyone was on board; even those who were forced against their will.

However, the transition from a simple planned market economy to a consumer-based one, was never carried out by the communists. Ormerod claims that supplying a wider range of products required to drive consumerism created more complicated goals. This proved to be beyond the ability of the Soviet system.

This provides parallels with the issues FFA’s has experienced in rolling out its development plans. The diagram from the NFDP below shows all the ‘spokes in the wheel’ that is required to move us forward. Each area alone has its own complexities, and that may only be analyzing it from club or association level.

“The degree of uncertainty rarely permits the computation of the optimal, the unequivocally best strategy, at any point in time.”

Ormerod goes on to explain why intent – plans – may not lead to desired outcomes is due to many factors, some transient, and some more permanent. This is the challenge in operating in a dynamic environment. Whilst the AFL and NRL operate primarily on a domestic level, football is not only trying to improve domestically, but also against the world.

This environment is altered from something as small as how a child’s parents can afford to play football, to how to compete with Asian nations who are spending millions of dollars to accelerate their football development, to the restrictions on A-League clubs to procure the best talent due to operating under a salary cap. There are consequences for each action, and even the most well informed and intentioned ones do not produce desired outcomes, as Ormerod explains:

“No matter how smart the planner, no matter how much information he or she gathers, there are inescapable limits to how much is to be known about the system.”

The Dutch might be the greatest exporters of football knowledge around the world, but even there is limits to their own knowledge of what is the optimal strategy. The same goes for the Germans, Spanish, and Brazilians. Apply that in a foreign land, with its own unique challenges, means that even world’s best practice may not translate to world class outcomes.

The Dutch might be the greatest exporters of football knowledge around the world, but even there is limits to their own knowledge of what is the optimal strategy.

The argument for a need for a centralized plan, is supported by Craig Foster in his book ‘Fozz on Football’, using the case studies of France’s 1998 World Cup win, and Spain’s recent domination of world football. On France:

“They built an entirely new centralized system with regional academies and developed their own methodology for producing footballers with technique and intelligence.”

Foster admits the underlying reason for this transformation was due to France possessing a ‘strong football culture’; something for a country like Australia which exposes itself to multiple sports provides a surmountable challenge to overcome. As France fell, other nations begin to dominate the world game, the latest being Spain. Foster again uses the nation’s success as a case study to support his claims:

“Spain is now reaping the rewards of a consistent, integrated strategy with vision to develop a generation of footballers with outstanding technique and are deeply educated in the science of the game.”

Foster then moved through a process of closer examination of World Cup winners. To achieve this, Foster outlined the need for a strong football culture, unique playing style, intelligent football media, and a wide breadth of players to provide the talent pool. The centrepiece being the National Curriculum:

“The FFA’s National Curriculum is Australian football’s birth certificate. It’s our first handbook to becoming a football nation, a step-by-step approach for every club in the land to allow young boys and girls the necessary educational process required to progress into elite professionals.”

A centralised approach to governing how football is developed in Australia is required a prudent use of resource or to quote Foster:

“We minimise wastage and maximise limited opportunities. Australia has to succeed by virtue of our limited population and relatively small financial strength.”

FFA has the resources to research the best practices and share them with the coaches and clubs. But the real purpose of the NC is to ensure that every footballer is taught correctly:

“In the absence of a coordinated approach, every state, club, association and coach, had their own views of what a young footballer should learn, and their own interpretation of how youngsters should be taught. The problem with such an approach is that, quite frankly, majority of them were wrong.”

FFA followed the model of Asian economies who accelerated their capacity to manufacture cars, which is called ‘technology transfer’. This is the process of transferring skills, knowledge, technologies or methods, that can be used to further develop existing capabilities. It is a short cut, rather than trying to work it out from scratch.

Common examples of the success of the ‘technology transfer’ model can be found in car exporting nations such as Japan, South Korea, and more recently China. Between 1925 and 1936, the Japanese subsidiaries of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler produced 200,000 more vehicles than domestic producers. In 1936, the Japanese government passed the Automobile Manufacturing Law to promote the domestic auto industry and reduce foreign competition. Now Japan is a major exporter of cars. It copied off the Americans, and beat them at their own game.

FFA is copying the Dutch model until they develop their own. To quote Foster:

“Considering Australia wants to move forward immediately, we need a methodology and philosophy that be bought off the shelf and implemented quickly.”

What has been discovered in technology transfer is the many costly mistakes are made, because you may be using a product or a process that is obsolete by the time you have perfected it, or find out that you are still behind the pace. The chairman of the Chinese state auto group Chongqing Changan Automobile, was quoted by the state-run Shanghai Securities News as saying:

“Take a product 20 years old and tweak a few parameters—it’s like displaying mutton but handing over dog’s meat. If this is to be counted as innovation, shame on the Chinese auto industry.”

Foster even admits, whilst the Dutch model is good, he would have preferred a mixture of the development models of France, Barcelona and Brazil. Here, Foster goes on to explain from a technical point of view the issues with the NC:

“In Spain, the techniques of positioning the body and receiving the ball (the fundamental technique of keeping possession), are detailed and taught. Whereas the Dutch expect a player to learn these through game-based training, the Spanish teach technique and apply it in a system. The Dutch expect a player to develop technique through playing a system. (As it happens, I prefer a mixture of the two, as do the French and Brazilians. And FC Barcelona).”

In a competitive environment, by the time Australia gets up to speed, we could still be lagging well behind. Rosenzweig quotes Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter’s ‘the perennial gale of creative destruction’, whilst applied to business survival in a free market economy, is applicable to the world of football. Australia can get better as a football nation, and fall further behind at the same time.

“Success rarely lasts as long as we’d like – for the most part, long term success is a delusion based on selection after the fact.”

In a competitive environment, by the time Australia gets up to speed, we could still be lagging well behind.

Using other nation’s success as proof of what can happen if we apply it here should be examined with a level of caution. As Spanish giants Barcelona were toppled out of this year’ UEFA Champions League, an all-German affair of eventual winners Bayern Munich versus Borussia Dortmund in the final, eyes then turn to Germany on the results of ten years of change under their own football development plan. Belgium is now producing a pipeline of world-class players, playing for some of the biggest clubs in the world, and Australia keeps one eye on the progress of Japan’s 100-year plan, a nation who is slightly outperforming Australia on the world stage.

Whilst change is happening in Japan, Germany and Belgium, none of them have won a World Cup of late. So yes, we should learn from what our competitors are doing, and see what can be applied here. As Ormerod explains (you will be spared going through game theory models on decision making), that we can draw upon the knowledge and experience of others to make better decisions, which might give us a slightly better chance of success.

But, as with using the Dutch system, people within the football media or coaching establishment, tend to see these patterns as ‘laws of football success’ to be packaged and rolled out. As Rosenzweig explains that the ‘link between inputs and outcomes is tenuous’. A country that fails to win the World Cup does not mean that they made drastic mistakes, and a good outcome does not mean the national federation acted brilliantly. What people believe leads to high performance is their choice of strategy and execution. Both come with risks, and neither is foolproof.

Strategic choice is based on ‘best guesses’ using internal and external information. Following the execution paths of developing talent of other ‘successful’ football nations may work in these countries, but may not work here. The NC might help to plug the gap in the technical deficiencies of players, but a lack of a football culture might hold the technology transfer of the Dutch model back. This has already been acknowledged by Berger, who has had to rewrite the curriculum, because he assumed the football knowledge in Australia to be higher than it was.

The analysis of football development needs to focus on innovation to survive the ‘perennial force of creative destruction’ as other football nations pour more money into resources, and hire the best coaching talent in the search of glory. Austrian-British economist, Friedrich Hayek, emphasized the importance of having a process of evolution in strategy, to discover new and more effective ways of doing things.

The challenge at present is that many are calling for change to occur once the NC is fully adopted. To quote Foster:

“I must reiterate that the methods being implemented are an outstanding start, and no revision or additions should take place until Australia has adopted the curriculum, and understands it very well. This will take a decade.”

Berger has also claimed to the media that it will take at least 10 years. If Australia is already deemed by many as ’20 years off the pace’ of successful football nations, in ten years time will we still be behind once we have implemented everything?

For any chance of survival in a competitive environment, what Hayek, Schumpeter, Ormerod, Rosenzweig, Harford, and even Foster (after 10 years implementation process of NC) all agree upon, is the need for continual innovation. Technology transfer got the likes of Hyundai up to speed in car manufacturing. But it was not until they innovated and came up with their own unique processes to produce cheaper, more reliable cars, then they became the dominant force.

The discussion needs to move away from the two dividing camps. You cannot uproot the system, as well as you cannot allow it be static until we have reached satisfaction that everyone is educated. It needs to be a process of continual improvement and innovation. Foster has claimed that over time we should organically develop our own style of football, why the need to wait? Can we not use the strength of our natural resources – a multicultural football community – and put it to better use? To quote Foster:

“This is why our multiculturalism is critical to our success, because even while we need a superb curriculum there must always be room for innovation, as often the genius comes in unexpected ways.”

If genius does come in ‘unexpected ways’, are we stifling that creativity by not allowing our football community to organically develop an Australian style of football? Could FFA not provide benchmarks to football development for each club, and then allow them to develop their own football philosophy, which is evolved from their community?

Those familiar with the old NSL and current state league level will confirm, that playing against different styles which reflected the origins of the players of the club, provided a unique set of challenges at each contest. By playing up stereotypes, Italian clubs are tactical, Balkan clubs technical, South American clubs provided flair, and Greek clubs conform to what ever style got them the result. As more immigrants come from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, this will provide more variations on how the game is played.

“Decentralised decision making by individual agents is unequivocally superior to central planning. It is rooted in biology. Individual behaviour is not fixed, but evolves in response to behaviours of others”

Ormerod on Friedrich Hayek’s theory

Ormerod states that it is innovation, evolution, and competition, are the hallmarks of a successful system. Are we denying ourselves the opportunity to leverage off our multiculturalism? It is good enough to promote the diversity of the people who play the game, and then dismiss the diversity of their opinion?

After years of rolling out major reforms and long term plans, it is time for FFA to take stock of the situation, and start to chunk the remaining projects into an achievable size. Schaffer provides an alternative to the conventional consulting practice, recommending to divide projects into steps, with defined measurable improvements. Examples of this could be to reduce the cost of average junior registration fees by 15%, or increase the number of qualified coaches for 7-11 age groups from ‘X’ to 100%. Football West just announced they will be reducing the cost of coaching courses by 33%. Now they can measure the increase in uptake by coaches who do the course, and if successful, then work towards further price reductions in the future.

Schaffer claims that by dividing projects in to manageable sizes increases the rapid cycle of results. Upon completion of the each project, more can be learned from the experience, and the capability to increase the size of each projects increase with each cycle. So for example, when administrators work on reducing registration fees, they would learn that the cost of hiring grounds impacts on the variability of the cost. The administrators would then need to strategically negotiate with local governments on reducing the cost of hiring fields, which could help with future projects such as increasing the number and quality of playing fields for football.

Seeing the cost of your child’s registration fees reduce is a tangible sign of improvement. Watching your child training on better fields, and move from being unable to kick a ball to being able to control, pass and dribble; is another tangible sign that the game is thinking of its constituents. This focus on development, whilst might it seem small to the planners, makes a massive impact when multiplied across the country.

Lower fees keep and attract more players to the game. More grounds allow clubs to be able to take in more players. Better coaching keeps them in the game for longer, as their confidence in being able to play the game helps their self-esteem. More players, who are better educated helps to move Australian football forward.

There are no guarantees for success. Improving our football knowledge base helps us as a nation make better informed decisions. However, we are starting behind other more successful nations. FFA has transferred an exisiting Dutch model as the base for our football development. But as with any technology transfer it is about getting up to speed quickly, and then improving on the model. Foster has rightly called for innovation, but we cannot wait for his prescribed date of 2019.

Moving from big plans and chunking them down into rapid-cycle projects would help to accelerate the knowledge base. But we should harness the existing knowledge, including those whom were involved prior to NFDP/NC, as well as existing nurseries of football talent to refine and improve on the Dutch model. Foster has called for oversight by football people on technical development.

A model of having clubs develop their own philosophies and methods of developing talent should also not be discounted. The FFA could set benchmarks for coaching accreditation requirements and for club operations and governance, as well as, creating an environment of innovation, the same way as how universities function. At present many of the clubs feel, particularly at state league level, that they have been told the way they have developed players has been wrong, whilst at the same time their talent is being taken and used by the system. There needs to be more of a co-operative approach to development, instead of continuously shaping the path.

Football NSW conducted a town hall meeting on Monday night with the football community, that was mainly attended by state league clubs and associations. Some of the issues that came out of the meeting were alarming. Only 40-50% of the coaches within the NPL and state league system had the relevant coaching qualifications. In the Skills Acquisition Program (SAP), there was a large disparity in the quality of the development, with some clubs appointing unqualified grassroots coaches, for what is meant to be an advanced development program for 9-11 year olds. Clubs are charging $1,500 for so called better football education in SAP, whilst providing poor quality level of training. The regional youth league, which sits below NPL youth system, was rushed and even admitted by the federation’s Chairman, Greg O’Rouke, “we got what we deserved”.

The solution by Football NSW is to reduce the number of plans, increase the dialogue between the football communities, and to use that feedback to improve on what has been put in place. This is an important step for the FFA, and other member federations to take note of, as there is a lack of feedback loop between football administration bodies and its members. Football NSW has conducted an assessment on SAP and NPL clubs, and has sent surveys to the players in SAP for feedback (NPL will be shortly). The findings will be given to clubs, coaches and players, so they can see what the feedback is, and what the requirements are from each club.

“The more complex and elusive our problems are, the more effective trial and error becomes, relative to alternatives.”

Harford provides some steps to adapting. One is it try new things in the expectation some will fail. Another is to make sure that you know when you have failed. This is why feedback is essential for determining what and where the problems are. The Soviet Union suppressed feedback, with 3,000 out of 10,000 engineers in the 1920s and 30s arrested, executed or sent to Siberia. Their crime was to object to the grand plans and to suggest alternatives. The Soviet system collapsed, most of the projects were largely failures, and a lack of innovation made it impossible for the economy to adapt to a rapidly changing world. The world was lead to believe the Soviet Union was powerful, when in fact it was not.

FFA’s development plans, built upon replicating successful models from overseas and adapting them to the environment, have been lauded, just like the Soviet Union’s 5-year plans were, as the path to football success. Precedent has taught us that success is fleeting, and can never be sustained. Increasing the football knowledge base, improving the existing plan, chunking down the projects into manageable pieces, empathy for those at the frontline in what their challenges are, a continuous program of innovation, and a feedback mechanism from the ground level up, will help improve Australia’s football development.

Whilst the goal of eventually winning the World Cup should never be lost, the focus should always be on how can we do things better.