Breaking Bad – what tennis can learn from youth football

With the predictable hours and pages devoted to the long-ignored (but accepted) issues with match fixing in tennis and football, the spectre of doping raised its ugly head again in a ‘click-baiting’ puff peace in Vanity Fair. Yet the greatest issues surrounding sports, both football and tennis, is the continued destruction of youth.

I’ve written here before about the inconsistency and general poor handling of youth players/programs, though, with very few exceptions, football can generally be considered safe. Certainly there are predators of a sexual nature, though this, in my experience, is always swiftly dealt with by clubs and authorities.

When one coach of a Moscow region side was found to have made sexual advances to a 13-year-old during a weekend tournament in Voronezh, he was fired and blacklisted. His reputation, as a former Premier League player, was ignored and he now works at a furniture factory north of St. Petersburg.

 

The only mistake made was not exacting justice according to the law, though given the general lack of concern in Russian authorities for children’s (or general public’s for that matter) welfare, what happened was far quicker and effective.

FIFA, UEFA and RFS guidelines are very clear on child welfare and while training methods here leave much to be desired, football shines a light for other sports to follow. Hard though it may be for the majority to hear, Messrs Blatter and Platini at the very least have made football in Russia safer for youth to take part in.

Tennis, however, turns a blind eye to the crimes perpetrated in its sport against youth players. Prettily worded protocols make for great reading, though they are not honoured or observed when being breached.

When I reported a traveling coach to an ITF tournament Director in Croatia for breaking these protocols and local laws for engaging sexually with a minor (20 years younger than himself) I expected action.

I didn’t expect for this offender to sidle up to me as I watched one of our players on court and say, “You will have a nice place in heaven waiting for you.” He is still traveling and working with young players.

In 2011 when one of our young female players, then 15, was approached by a female coach at a tournament in England, she rejected the advances and told an older pro.

She was told that unless she wanted to “miss the boat”, she’d have to play along with it. On my advice she reported it to the Tournament supervisor, but the matter went no further. The coach is still coaching and works with a National Fed Cup side in Europe.

Aside from doping, match fixing, pushy parents, corrupt federations who pay big money to buy in talented youth, pedophilia and child abuse, tennis is doing okay. Percentage-wise far more youth players disappear from the ranks each year than progress even to half-decent level. Football’s authorities, for all their errors and issues, at least try to control what goes on within their game.

The Jack Grealish saga brought home to many that pulling on your country’s shirt can be confusing and difficult. Just how would the media on both sides of the Irish Sea would have reacted if his father had gone to the USA, cut a deal with the USSF for an up front six-figure sum, a five year multi-million dollar contract and a fast-tracked passport is another matter.

In football youth players from Africa and Brazil are brought to nominally wealthier countries and put on citizenship tracks – Eduardo Da Silva in Croatia being one notable success. Yet generally this is abhorred and those players are ones who would not be quite good enough to appear for their own nations – especially in the cases of Brazilians or Argentinians.

 

In tennis it is exceptional players who are headhunted and whose parents are offered eye-watering sums to sign up for another flag, one of the most embarrassing being Dasha Gavrilova, a former client. Her father tried, and failed, to sell her to Kazakhstan (not enough up front cash), France (not enough cash), Italy (no interest) and even Ireland (no cash, no interest).

Russia were not willing to treat his precious daughter any better than anyone else. He told me at a 5-a-side football game we were both attending that his last hope was Australia. I gave a heads up to my former colleague (an Aussie pro). She said, no chance, “Australia doesn’t pay.”

Yet a short time later they did. Buying in a ready-made Russian player to boost their thinning youth ranks was worth the high cost. Though of course this was a love connection – nothing else!

So while tennis continues the head in the clouds attitude towards the problems which apparently do not exist for their leaders, football does look differently at youth matters. At a recent weekend workshop in Moscow, which I had the privilege (agony) of addressing in both English and Russian, I saw that even more mature coaches were genuinely looked to upskill – from using software for diet plans to embracing NLP.

One coach, who at 73 was not the oldest present, told me that he journeyed at his own expense to Germany to visit successful youth programs there, wasn’t fully impressed with their nutrition plans, so returned to advance what he knew and had seen.

Youth football in Russia contains huge potential, World Cup winning potential. Not that 2018 will be the year, though 2026 could well be Russia’s year, so long as good coaches don’t lose heart, UEFA and FIFA continue supporting positive and productive initiatives, and the the money wasted on sub-standard talent is spent on education, nutrition and development of youth.

Most important of all, that Russia concentrates on two things – kicking its youth footballers up the backside by paying them less and realising that star players from 20-35 years of age are far more important than prodigies at 15. At least football can break bad habits, for tennis it’s already too late.

Author Details

Alan Moore
Alan Moore

A Russia-based Sports Journalist and Consultant, worked with major sports clubs including:- Spartak Moscow, Hajduk Split, Eintracht Frankfurt. Boxed Internationally, played semi-pro football and worked full-time in sports management/consultancy from 2003-13. First published professionally on football in 1990, first Russian league match in 1991, now hosting Capital Sports on Capital FM, Moscow and the Capital Sports Stadium Shows at the RZD Arena and writing the odd article. Director of the Russian State Social University College in Moscow. And to make things more fun, he produces and hosts #ChampTalks for UNESCO, Moscow's Tolerance Centre and Capital FM.

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