Ponce: Failure is all part of success

Though the Final Draw for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015 had just pitched the tournament hosts into a daunting Group A with three-time champions Nigeria, USA and Croatia, their coach Miguel Ponce was calmness personified as he digested the news.

After all, Ponce has been no stranger to adversity since taking on the job in March. His appointment came in the immediate aftermath of Chile’s poor showing in the South American U-17 Championship, where La Rojita – who took part in the competition despite having already qualified for the world finals as hosts – finished last after losing all four of their games, a return that cost Ponce’s predecessor, Alfredo Grelak, his job.

As Ponce told FIFA.com following the draw for Chile 2015, his biggest task since then has been rebuilding the players’ confidence: “It’s not easy to do that after a major setback, because a lot of them think that failure is not part of the process. It is, though. It’s all part of success and we use it as a tool. They know what it is to lose now. Imagine if they’d come back home to hear us tell them that they’re not up to this...”

So how has he gone about the task of healing the emotional wound then? “When we took on the job we made it clear that we were adults and they were children,” Ponce said, who is about to turn 44. “The paths they take are the ones we want them to take, and if there’s something that doesn’t work, it’s because we haven’t given them the right instructions and there are things that need to be corrected and coached.”

Not afraid to shoulder responsibility even though he played no part in Chile’s unsuccessful continental championship campaign, Ponce, whose only previous coaching experience has come at club level, is well aware of the educational role he now has to perform.

“Though some of the boys who played in the South American Championships are not in the squad now, that doesn’t mean to say they’re not good enough,” he explained. “You look for and choose players because you have an idea in mind, but that doesn’t mean to say the future’s mapped out for anyone.”

He added: “We’ve made sure everyone’s got the message by telling them a tale about two kids playing on a frozen lake in Canada. When one of them steps on thin ice and falls into the freezing water, the other fetches a stone and bangs away on the ice until he opens up a hole and rescues his friend.

“When the firemen arrive they wonder how a little boy managed to do that with just a stone and his little hands. There’s an old man listening in and he says: ‘I can explain that to you. It’s because there wasn’t an adult around telling him he couldn’t do it’.”

Putting theory into practice Asked to explain his footballing philosophy, Ponce said: “I want a team that presses as one, not on an individual level, because we’ll be up against some very strong and fast opponents. Chileans aren’t especially fast players, but we are technically gifted.

“What I want us to do is win the ball back quickly and get control of it, which is more or less what the national team did in the Copa America. They pressed further down the pitch rather than up front and individually, but they played good football too.”

Nicknamed El Chueco, Ponce was a midfielder in his playing days and retired in 2006 after a 17-year career in which he made 18 appearances for La Roja, two of them in FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers.

Asked if the success Chile enjoyed on home soil in the Copa America heaps further pressure on his young charges, he had this to say: “It depends. People shouldn’t forget the ten-year development of the generation that ended up winning the title.

“It’s been a process: there was a U-20 World Cup (in 2007), two World Cup qualifying campaigns, two World Cups and another Copa America before the title finally came. If people forget that whole journey, then they’re bringing in negative pressure.”

As Ponce went on to explain, there is another way of looking at Chile’s recent success: “The positive thing is that we’ve now got benchmarks at the very highest level, with players who, for example, are leaving Juventus to join Bayern Munich.

“We can use those achievements to show the kids that success doesn’t come just like that. There’s (Gary) Medel with his strength, Alexis (Sanchez) with his determination, Arturo (Vidal) with his rebellious streak and (Charles) Aranguiz with his skill. You motivate them as a team and as individuals but without forgetting that they’re still learning.”

Though that learning curve is obviously important, Ponce has specific objectives in mind at the upcoming U-17 World Cup: “If you don’t play to win, then you shouldn’t be playing. The same goes for having dreams. If you don’t dream of being a champion, then you’ll never make the journey.

“We know there are better teams out there, though. It would be great to get through the first two rounds because anything can happen after that. If we set ourselves any other objective than that, then we’d be doing just what the fans do and forgetting the path this team has to take.”

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