As the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013 was drawing to a close, the FIFA Coaching Instructors’ Seminar gave the opportunity to get five experienced coaches and trainers for an insightful debate on the game, held in Istanbul. 

Heading the quintet was Peruvian legend Teofilo Cubillas, three times a FIFA World Cup™ participant and also a Copa America winner. Joining him was Francisco Maturana, a prominent figure in Colombia’s footballing history; Gabriel Calderon, a world youth champion with Argentina and a veteran of two FIFA World Cup final tournaments; Gines Melendez, the Spanish Football Association’s (RFEF) national team coordinator; and Mariano Moreno, the former director of Spain’s National Coaching Academy.

The five proved entertaining debaters, putting forward their points of view with conviction and listening intently to what their colleagues had to say as they went over a series of topics in a fascinating round table.

Players and systems
The forum took place on the eve of the tournament showpiece between France and Uruguay, the participants heaping praise on the two finalists before getting down to brass tacks. The first topic up for debate was tactics, with the discussion focusing on the 4-2-3-1 formation, a system used by many of the teams appearing at Turkey 2013.

“I’ve been using the system for nine years,” said the 53-year-old Calderon, a vastly experienced coach on the Asian scene and a member of the Argentina squad that finished runners-up at Italy 1990. “To my mind it’s the best one because it allows you to attack with five or six players and defend with as many as eight. It lets you strike a balance between defence and attack.”

“It’s definitely a flexible system,” agreed Maturana, Colombia’s coach at USA 1994, with Cubillas and Melendez also nodding their heads in approval. “You can switch to 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 during the game. It all depends on the way the midfielders on the flanks play. The wider they are the less space there is for the full-backs to get forward, whereas if they tuck in, like [Arjen] Robben and [Franck] Ribery do for Bayern Munich, it gives you flexibility and allows the full-backs to catch defences off guard.”

“The problem with that formation is when you’re up against two forwards,” said Melendez, sounding a note of caution. “They’re always going to be one-on-one against the centre-halves, though it is the best system for attacking zonal defences. To mark your No10 the opposition have to bring a midfielder back or move a central defender forward, which creates space for your other players.”

Maturana voiced his agreement, while making a personal observation: “It’s always the players who make systems work. They all depend on people. You also have to remember that every player’s role hinges on the people around them. Look at Real Madrid. What would [Sami] Khedira be if he didn’t have Xavi Alonso behind him? It’s your team-mates who bring sense to what you do.”

“That’s right. Systems alone don’t win games and footballers only play well when the team plays well,” said Calderon by way of agreement. “[Lionel] Messi provided a good example of that four years ago, when he was turning it on for Barcelona and off his game for Argentina. The national team’s playing better these days and he’s upped his game accordingly.”  

Schools of thought
The next topic the experts got their teeth into was the playmaker. Though seemingly a dying breed, the performances of Colombia’s hugely gifted No10 Juan Quintero at Turkey 2013 hinted at a brighter future for the game’s creative schemers.  

All five experts pointed to the fact that the latest players to star in the role have all hailed from South America, with Calderon venturing a reason as to why: “It all has to do with the education they’ve had. Most of them learn the game in the street, unlike in Europe, where there’s an academy culture.”

“Kids have it very easy in the academies,” said Cubillas, an exquisitely talented attacking midfielder in his playing days.

Backing that view, Maturana said: “In Europe there are a lot of what I’d called ‘laboratory’ players. They’ve almost been programmed to play. In South America they grow up in the street, dodging between cars, trying to keep the ball from running under buses. The street makes you an inventive player. It builds up your immune system, if you will.”

“The problem with the academy in my view is that there’s a lack of competition sometimes,” said Melendez, offering a European viewpoint on the subject. “You usually have one perfect training session after another and players learn the ropes by playing competitive games.”

“The organisation in Europe is excellent but they need to be careful,” added Calderon. “The academy system works as long as you give players about 30 percent of total anarchy. The day Europe does that is the day it will need less South Americans (laughs). You can’t generalise, though. After all, Xavi and [Andres] Iniesta are both ‘academy products’.”

Global power shifts
A single word can change the course of any discussion centring on football, and on this occasion that word was “Spain”. In turning their thoughts to the comprehensive 3-0 defeat that Brazil meted out to the reigning world champions in the recent FIFA Confederations Cup final, the pundits were all agreed on one thing: the criticism levelled at La Roja was unjustified.

“You have to be fair,” they all concurred. “Spain have been on top for years, winning the European title twice and the World Cup, you can’t say we’re going to see a change just because they’ve lost one game.”

Expressing his surprise at the reaction, Melendez said: “There were all sorts of things being said. People were criticising the draw against Italy, as if they were just any old team. I mean, it was Italy they were playing!

“It’s only natural,” interjected Maturana. “Whenever you lose it leaves you open to criticism. It was one result and that was that. They lost in South America to the five-time champions of the world. How many European teams have won there? None.”

So does that mean to say that the next world champions will come from South America?

“Not necessarily,” said Calderon in reply. “The favourites are the same as always: the defending champions, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Germany and the like. And there’ll be a surprise or two, just as there always is.”

Melendez begged his colleagues not to name Spain among their candidates for Brazil 2014, prompting this reply from a smiling Maturana: “Spain are the ones who’ve broken all records! They’ve come from nowhere to win everything and played great football too.”

One team to draw the admiration of all the panel members were Germany. “I’ve been saying for the last three years that the Germans are the future of the game because of the way they develop their youth players,” said an admiring Melendez, who coached Spain to four European titles at youth level.

“Take a look at Italy, for example," he went on. "They don’t have the same players coming through as Germany. Khedira was born in 1987, [Mesut] Ozil in 1988, [Thomas] Muller in 1989, Tony Kroos in 1990 and [Mario] Gotze in 1992. They’ve also got a very definite style of play.”

The next generation
A favourite topic of coaches and trainers is young players, and these five experts, all of whom have turned 50, had plenty to say on the theme.

“The world has changed and players have too,” said Maturana, getting the ball rolling. “In the old days you’d tell a player to push an opposing player out wide and he’d do it. These days he asks you why, and as a coach you have to be ready to come up with an answer.”

Cubillas expanded on the theme: “Being a coach was easier in the past. When you stopped playing you just went straight into coaching, drawing on all the things you’d learned as a player. You need a lot more than that today, though. More than anything you need to be a psychologist. That’s the only way you can handle 23 or 24 young lads.”

“You also have to learn from technology,” added Maturana. “In our day we had to sit through a five-hour video and we kept our mouths shut. But imagine trying to do that now. You have to make a little film for them and send it to their phones.”  

All were agreed that respect is now a key part of coaching, with Melendez observing: “You go into the dressing room now and the players are sizing you up straightaway: ‘This one knows his stuff. This one’s a bit soft’. It’s all changed in the last decade.”

And that was that. If it had been up to them, the five wise men would still be talking now, their passion for the game undimmed by the passage of time. And if their meeting in Istanbul proved anything, it is that few sports can generate quite as much as debate as the grand old game of football.