As featured in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2021/jan/28/why-i-left-england-and-moved-to-spain-to-become-a-football-coach
Suspenseful whispers of “what sort of brain has that lad got?” from fellow candidates are followed by an eruption of congratulatory cheers and the 19-year-old is welcomed into the dressing room through a pasillo – a guard of honour. He has completed his final practical assessment and has been given feedback from the course tutors. Like the rest of us, he is now a Uefa A licenced football coach. Once he completes his 160 hours of assessed coaching hours, that is.
Having been held up in traffic that morning, the young hopeful had arrived more than 20 minutes late to the last of 12 practical assessment days, and his 40 minute on-pitch exam had been moved from the 9:45am slot to the last one of the day at 3pm.
Though the assessors were in a lenient enough mood to stay out on the pitch longer than the scheduled time in order to allow the young coach to complete his last session, they weren’t forgiving enough to let this one last audit run as smoothly as the teenager might have wished.
As the sweltering Mediterranean sun beat down on the parched artificial turf, legs and minds fatigued as the afternoon ticked on. Endless constraints were thrown at the aspiring candidate who now wore a rueful grimace; “OK, now what if this player hasn’t turned up or got injured in the warm up?” was bellowed by the impish tutor, signalling for one of the players to leave the session. In less than a second the coach threw a bib at another player, stating that he was now the neutral, playing for whichever team was in possession.
“Good. But now you’ve created an overload in every zone for the team with the ball, which isn’t loyal to the topic as they don’t have to think or work to create the superiority in numbers where you want” is the response to the aspirant, as all eyes shift is his direction. Following a nonchalant wipe of sweat from his eyebrow, the university student adjusts two of the cones with a demand of “Now, you can only score after creating and using an overload in these wide areas!” The tutors nod in approval as the ball is in play once again.As barks of encouragement and guidance from the coach fill the air, the session is stopped by the whistle of a tutor. With players paused for a quick drinks-break the interrogative invigilators now advise the pupil that players are tired, and the level of quality is dropping. Desperate to maintain his remarkably innovative standards, flat discs are added as a final ‘on the spot’ alteration as goalkeepers become ‘acting neutrals’ with teams now playing out from the back from the goal they score in, which allows teams to preserve their shape, structure and principles without consuming as much energy. One tutor mutters “What a little bastard” to those around him, failing to disguise his impressed smirk as the session develops.
Three whistles blow to the tune of the full-time whistle as the older of the two tutors asks the relieved looking young man “Did this look like what you had on your session plan?” Following a shake of the head and an apprehensive smile as a response, the tutor beamed “Good. That’s football. That’s coaching. That’s life. Fantastic work, young man. Now, don’t be late to your own session again.”
The bidding coach is just one of thousands of Spanish alumni to have begun their coaching journey whilst still in their teens; joining the likes of Atletico de Madrid’s flying full-back Ricard Sánchez and many more to hold a UEFA coaching qualification before turning 20.
With each Spanish region hosting between four and 12 courses for each qualification a year, UEFA state that, as of 2017, Spain boasted a whopping 15,089 coaches who held either the UEFA Pro or UEFA A coaching qualification. The numbers are extraordinary, especially when compared to the 1,796 in England. More figures that advocate the Spanish coaching pathway are the course prices; with the Spanish A licence costing a mere £960, and the Pro licence £1070. In contrast, to enrol on the A licence in England, bidding coaches must pay £3,645 and a staggering £9,890 to complete the Pro licence; should there be any available places on the handful of courses at St. George’s Park.
In the wake of receiving yet another email of rejection upon my ninth application to enrol on the UEFA B Coaching course through the English FA, I made a decision. Having got lost in a physicality-fused game which prioritised guts and grit over style and guile on the mud-wrapped pitches of northern England, I was mesmerized by a football that was marinated in Pep Guardiola’s own rejuvenated version of Johan Cruyff’s positional game, flavoured by Marcelo Bielsa’s gallant methods and inspired by the successes of Luis Aragonés and Vicente del Bosque on the international stage; and I committed to beginning Spanish language classes and uprooted in the summer of 2014. Spain had a football that was unrivalled both technically and tactically, and a seemingly otherworldly level that was being churned out on my television every weekend. The astounding statistic of coaches climbing their way up the ladder served in boosting my tenacity.
Athletic Bilbao’s coach Marcelo Bielsa (down) and Barcelona’s coach Josep Guardiola (R) look at their players during the Spanish league football match FC Barcelona vs Athletic Bilbao on March 31, 2012 at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona. AFP PHOTO/LLUIS GENE (Photo credit should read LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)
Within 10 days of arriving on Catalan tierra – each of which spent visiting numerous clubs and sessions – I was invited to join the coaching staff of an under-15 team, funding my living by delivering English conversation classes through the days. Two seasons later, in the autumn of 2016, and after the lows of losing in the Spanish Cup Final (played live on national television), the highs of away days at FC Barcelona’s famed La Masia Academy, hundreds of hours spent around the exhilarating language, culture and structure of the Spanish game (which contradicted every single mechanism I’d been taught on homeland) and following three more rejected applications to enrol on the English course, I felt ready to ready to take on Spain’s UEFA B course. Truthfully, I couldn’t have been further from it.
To my consternation, pedagogy was the subject of the first module, with of psychology, sociology and biology blocks following. With sessions taking place throughout the mornings of a six-month period, specialised lecturers delivered each subject, and I was told to leave my boots and tactics board at home until these areas were covered and examined. If my mind wasn’t already frazzled by the academic nature of the course then by the time we got onto the methodology, technical and tactical work out on the pitch I was perplexed by the meticulous details and minutiae that exist in this game.
Coaches were given freedom to invoke their own approach and concepts, providing they could defend their methods to the group and persuade fellow students and tutors of their beliefs, both in the classroom and then out on the pitch. Paco Seirul’s idea of structured training was delivered by one student and Bielsa’s ‘5 ways to lose your marker’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2IDkW9AEcw&t) were explored by another; consisting of the ‘Counter-anticipating reception’ which includes a requirement of players passing to the opponent when their teammate is facing inwards; bewildered expressions on player’s faces chased the foreign demand.
With area dimensions, timed workloads, timed resting periods, number of players and varying conditions all affecting the tactical complexity of sessions, principles, sub-principles and sub-sub-principles were implemented during the morning by one tutor (a first team coach at a La Liga club) who then delivered the afternoon session out on the pitch with such painstaking technical and tactical detail that I was forced to skip the game on TV later that day in order to take a siesta to allow my cognitive cells to recover somewhat.
After 14 written exams, 12 assignments and 10 practical assessments, I was awarded the UEFA B coaching licence. Two years later, in 2018, having completed the required 150 coaching hours and worked on my craft, implementing and applying my studies into my philosophy, I was invited onto the intensive A licence where friendships were formed with likeminded peers over the 12-week course that ran throughout the summer, resulting in a role at the pinnacle of Spanish youth football with the under-19 team at Getafe, alongside a study placement at Atletico de Madrid’s academy.Courses are just a diminutive part of learning, and I was fortunate enough to be just one of a multitude of foreign students to have chosen the accessible Spanish pathway. But with doors open to anybody, regardless of background, age, gender or footballing beliefs, connections are constructed, and ideas are born. It’s no coincidence that Spanish football boasts a system which consistently moulds fledglings into world stars and schooled more than 54% of the European Cup winning managers over the past 12 years; and the extraordinary success will continue.
Seven years after taking the leap to start the adventure into the Spanish pathway, I have recently commenced onto the final hurdle in starting the UEFA Pro course and look forward to the next opportunity in this beautifully complex game.
Written by Alex Clapham