TAFA’s Dortmund link up puts Sri Lanka youth in spotlight

Friday, 11 May 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Madushka Balasuriya

“We don’t have an active youth league in Sri Lanka, something that is very important and is the need of the hour. Hopefully the authorities will put something together soon,” bemoans TAFA Football Academy founder Thaabit Ahmed.

Ahmed is addressing the media at the German Embassy in Sri Lanka, alongside a team of 14 boys from his academy. The team, which comprises TAFA’s Under 15 squad, have just returned from a week long excursion to Germany, where they were provided arguably a once in a lifetime opportunity to train at world renowned football club Borussia Dortmund.

The trip, which saw the team introduced to new techniques and drills by Dortmund’s very own UEFA A-licensed coaches, was an invaluable experience that these young kids will likely never forget.

“It was a big step to get an opportunity to take a team to Germany. It wasn’t the first, we’ve gone before to Italy and England on more small scale trips. This is the first time that we had an entire Under 15 team for a residential camp. The camp was exclusively hosted just for us,” explains Ahmed.

Fresh ideas

The drills themselves were far removed from those the players, and even the coaches, are accustomed to back home. Dortmund’s entire footballing philosophy is based on a team-first approach, but that doesn’t mean they don’t attempt to eke every ounce of effort from their players. With talent in abundance at the highest level, it’s the small margins that mark a great player from simply a very good one.

“Myself and coach Calum were involved in all of the training sessions, and we were also actively involved in planning the training sessions. And when the session was over we would see what went wrong and how to improve things. Even we feel that at the end of five days we’ve gone through a graduation program.

“One of the biggest focuses was called ‘train with the brain’, where a lot of the focus was given to hand-eye-leg coordination and reaction time. Reaction time is everything. Two players can have the same skill, the same body shape, but the one who has the advantage is the one who can react quicker.”

The ‘train with the brain’ warm up drills included the use of colours, numbers, multiplication, and even fruits, along with regulation work with the ball. The objective was to split players’ attention so as to enable faster decision making. “You’re doing a drill and while you’re doing it they’ll ask you to mental problems. And so you have to think on the spot. Stuff like that was very advanced and new to me as a coach. “Then it got even more complicated, they make you do the same thing but with opposites. When they say Banana for the yellow cone, you actually need to react to strawberry. And they intentionally call the yellow cone red, and the black cone was called white. But we had fun, and it really opened our eyes.”

Focus on youth

The widespread introduction and adoption of new coaching methods, as well as fresh-faced coaches, is something Ahmed believes is crucial in the continued development of the sport in the country. One of the most efficient ways to improve overall skill levels of youth players is through competition.

“Just start off with a basic youth league, it’s very simple. They are a lot of teams playing and there are so many players out there and all you have to do is find a weekend, book a ground and say ‘look let’s play some football’ and put a structure to it. I don’t think it’s rocket science, but you still need somebody to do it.

“Obviously the football federation has to look into it. These are things that the sports ministry also can initiate and you know encourage to do, where we can have islandwide tournaments. There are school based tournaments but there aren’t club-based tournaments. There are youth teams within Sri Lanka’s club system but there are no youth leagues.

“Everyone plays friendlies, but friendlies can only get you so far. What Germany did 20 years ago was revamp the youth setup, and that’s what produced top players 10-15 years later. So we need that.”

Germany is the benchmark for any footballing nation that wants organic improve in their footballing setup. Following a disappointing European championships in 2000 Germany decided to completely overhaul their youth setup, a key aspect of which was the rigorous youth recruitment through clubs’ youth academies with the German Football Association themselves setting up minimum standards for players.

Explains German Ambassador to Sri Lanka Jörn Rohde: “About 15-20 years ago Germany wasn’t as successful, and then the German football federation decided to revamp its youth development system and it bore fruit about five to 10 years later, when all the youngsters started to come through the training academies. So I think that’s always the key to success, to have such sustainable structures in place.” TAFA was the first private youth academy in Sri Lanka, however since opening in 2009 several more have popped up. This is something that gives Ahmed hope over the country’s youth development, but he firmly believes more needs to be done by the relevant authorities as well.

 “We can have regional based tournaments. Jaffna has such a big volume of kids playing football - untapped. I think in the last 2-3 years we’ve had Jaffna schools almost reaching finals in the Under 19 tournaments. Very limited facilities but the skill is there, I’ve been to Jaffna, I’ve seen it. These kids have to be nurtured and given the opportunity,” says Ahmed.

“The other thing is that coaches also need to be developed. Some of the coaches are still the same from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, the same guys are still there. We need to give training, modern training, and opportunities for young coaches. And that way the system will get refreshed. We can’t have the same old training methods from decades ago. Football is changing every year, so we need to catch up a lot.”

German Embassy relationship bearing fruit

TAFA’s relationship with the German Embassy is one that keeps growing year on year. Last year they worked together to host a ‘Mini World Cup’, while the German Embassy has constantly assisted in helping TAFA promote football in less developed areas of the country. In fact, this past week TAFA along with the DFB-Stiftung Egidius Braun – the foundation of the German Football Association which supports projects of social integration and children in need – have been conducting workshops for underprivileged kids in Batticaloa.

It was in this same spirit that the German Embassy and its social outreach foundation arranged the donation of two tickets, courtesy Qatar Airways, for two kids from less privileged backgrounds to travel to Germany to train at Borussia Dortmund.

“It only took four engaged institutions with a big heart for children and football to make this trip a great success,” the German Embassy said in a media release.

With one of those kids coming away from tour as the Coaches’ Player of the Week following their Dortmund trip, it is clear that investing in Sri Lanka’s youth is the only worthwhile option worth pursuing going forward.

Pix by Upul Abayasekara