The Inspirational World Cup
By "Coach Dave" - Dave Homer, Little Kickers Stourbridge and West Birmingham
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In less that a month, the eyes of the planet will be focused on the greatest show on earth, The World Cup.
Though football won't quite be 'Coming Home' in the traditional sense as it did in1966 and for the European Championships of 1996 when the game returned to its' birth place, arguably it could be viewed as returning to it's metaphorical 'school, college or university home'. Or 'educational home', maybe.
For whilst Brazil wasn't the nation who gave football to the world, significantly the Brazilians did add the 'beautiful' part to the "beautiful game".
Many of us of a certain age arguably remember more about the great Brazil sides of 1970 and 1982 than we do of the modern day crop.
The panache and audacity of icons like Pele, Zico and Socrates is eternally etched upon our memories. And in turn tales of these masters brilliance are passed down through the generations. My eldest son still pretends he's Pele when playing in the garden now. Pele - a player who last kicked a ball in anger some thirty odd years before my son was even born. That is some legacy!
Though missing out on England's solitary moment of glory in 1966, as a kid myself I was fortunate enough to have been born at a time when England failed to qualify for back-to-back World Cups in 1974 and 1978. So my first memory was España 1982.
Are any readers old enough to remember running home from school to catch the second half of England's group games v Kuwait or France? The latter, in which a certain Bryan Robson scored after just 27 seconds.
The England squad were located in Bilbao. The games were played in sunshine to the backdrop of huge open air stadiums. Players like Boniek, Rossi and even Gerry Armstrong were like Gods to this awestruck nine year old. I'd been to plenty football matches but never seen anything like this.
Next came Mexico 1986 and 'The Hand of God'. Staying up until 2am to watch and listen to the phenomenal commentaries of the late great Brian Moore and, of course, Gary Lineker, his goals, and his broken arm.
Italia 90 was probably even better than the previous two World Cups. And regarded by many as the last great World Cup before the sanitisation and greed which has prevailed in professional football over the past twenty years. This was the last “pure” World Cup. The last footballing spectacle before money and Mr Blatter's vision of hawking the greatest prize on earth to obscure parts of the world to the highest bidder.
It was also the last time England achieved anything of note. Reaching the semi finals.
The three World Cups of 1982, 1986 and 1990 provided the backdrop to my youth, from the age of nine through to seventeen. They also formed my fondest memories of not just watching but also playing football. The lure of the beautiful game coupled with the long summer nights enticed kids to get out the house before and after the match for a kick about with their mates. Nothing formal or organised, just fun, imagination and passion for football.
I've fonder memories of these times, inventing our own rules, no referees or adults shouting instructions, than any of the formal matches I played in. Regardless of trophies and medals won.
A piece of metal on a ribbon after all is worthless, in comparison to happy memories.
And many of the greatest players back then (and now) most certainly developed the vast majority of their attributes in these cauldrons of creativity and freedom as opposed to the sterile and formal environments of academies and official club training and league matches.
As alluded to earlier, I don't recall anything about football post 1982. So what happened before the age of nine for me, and millions of others like me?
The answer is most likely a kick about with Dad or the dog in the garden.
There was very little available football-wise for young children in those days. And though times were more relaxed and safer, even back then, as a rule very young children weren't allowed out to play on their own.
And, with the best will in the world, very young children do need some guidance and structure as opposed to being able to run riot like those who are a little older enjoy doing!
Lack of footballing opportunity for young children is of course a problem which has been confined to the history books, thanks to the advent of pre school football classes. Little Kickers, established just after the Japan and South Korea 2002 World Cup, provides the perfect arena for the aspiring young Messi or Ronaldos of future World Cups to get two feet on the footballing ladder.
Yes, Little Kickers is organised and there are strong themes of structure and learning, the like of which any aspiring footballer will require as second nature as they get older. But the principal of 'Play Not Push' is the overriding ethos within the programme, and the philosophy of learning and developing through play and enjoyment is paramount.
Little Kickers is effectively the “jumpers for goalposts” football for the modern pre school child.
I've personally operated my franchise in Stourbridge and West Birmingham for nearly five years now. So many of our original two to six year olds are seven to eleven now. And from time to time I'll see them in the park playing wonderful football, or hear from their parents how well their child is doing. Much of it is down to the positive and age appropriate basics these children learned at Little Kickers. And I stop to consider for a moment how they'd be doing without their introduction to football through Little Kickers. Or even if they'd still be playing?
Hopefully, the time when it's seen as the norm to start playing age-appropriate football at age two, rather than a novelty, is not too far away.
When, not if, that becomes the case, with young footballers going into organised football already being able to play rather than having to 'learn on the job' in a sink or swim environment, then maybe, just maybe England might have the raw materials required to develop into the final article which could actual win something again.
And as for the vast majority of ex Little Kickers who don't go on to be professional footballers? They and their parents can rest assured that the foundations of many a life skill from teamwork and communication through to the long term benefits of exercise and a healthy lifestyle have been firmly established.
I'm hoping England can make us proud this summer, but most of all I'm excited about another generation of children falling in love with the beautiful game.