Offside, 13 December

A British junior football league has devised a new way to alleviate the pain of defeat - by doing away with competition altogether.

Duleep Allirajah

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The history of English football is littered with heroic failures (and, more recently, a heroic draw against the mighty Greece). Thirty years of hurt…and counting.

The French have found a way to avoid the pain of defeat: they now win everything. The English, by contrast, generally try to alleviate the hurt by advertising pizzas. However, a British junior football league has now devised a Third Way – it has done away with winning and losing altogether (1). The South Buckinghamshire Mini-Soccer Conference (SBMSC) has banned the publication of league results in the local press. League official Trevor Saunders told the Bucks Herald that ‘If you lose 15-0 it really hurts these boys, it does them no good at all. This is about football, it is not about winning or losing’ (2).

The goalscorers can be named in match reports but, in a novel take on the old spot-the-ball competitions, readers are left to guess the final score. Teams who flout these rules and publicise their match results will be expelled from the league. Moreover, the pint-sized players have been ordered to tone down their goal celebrations: ‘It is bad enough to concede a goal without having it rubbed in your face’, explains Trevor Saunders. One suspects he speaks from bitter experience.

And the lunacy doesn’t stop there. On visiting the SBMSC website I found that parents’ behaviour is also governed by a code of conduct (3). Adults are not allowed ‘coach’ or ‘manipulate’ players, shout, swear, ‘use sarcasm’, or appeal for free kicks. Moreover, they are expected to:

— ‘Praise effort and performance more than result’ (‘Well done son, you lost 15-0 but your work-rate was a joy to behold’);

— ‘Look for aspects to praise in players who might not otherwise get attention’ (‘Well done keeper, you picked the ball out of the net just like Fabien Barthez’); and

— ‘Give them clear examples of excellent behaviour’ (‘Go on my son, kick the ball into touch so an injured opponent can receive treatment’).

Of course, it must be acutely embarrassing to see your father ‘doing a Martin O’Neill’ in demented fashion on the touch-line, but it’s not exactly child cruelty either. Yes, if parents started spitting and throwing coins at kiddie footballers there might be justifiable cause for concern. But how harmful can a bit of partisan support be?

SBMSC believes that ‘Serious competition at too early an age has been shown to be damaging to players’. I would agree that it is wrong for children to play nothing but competitive football at the expense of developing their ball skills. But competition is not just an unnecessary appendage of football – it is the very essence of the game. Competition-free football is like alcohol-free lager – not just dull, but utterly pointless.

If children are old enough to play football then they are also old enough to understand that winning is the objective. And once they can grasp this basic tenet of the game, they should be exposed to the humiliation of defeat. Defeat can be crushing, but it can also serve as a powerful motivational spur to improve. Moreover, it is difficult to see how getting a pat on the back for playing badly can instil the will to win.

It is bad enough that we have produced generations of players who have never practised penalties. But if our young footballers are taught to believe that there is no shame in defeat, then the only winners will be the Germans.

Read on:

spiked-issues: Sport

(1) Bucks Herald, 5 December 2001

(2) Bucks Herald, 5 December 2001

(3) See the SBMSC website

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