By Tony Attwood
Investors are being urged to put money into building networks of football coaching academies across the country.
That opening sentence may have taken you by surprise. Unfortunately this is not in England, where investment in grassroots football is now in total terminal decline due to FA bankruptcy and government starvation of funds for local councils.
No, that statement comes from China where the desire to sort out the growing mental health problems among their young has spread, as I mentioned previously, has now encompassed giving youngsters more and more opportunities to get away from mobile phones, tablets, and an inactive lifestyle, by encouraging them to play football.
A recent report in England shows growing number of children are self-harming or have regular suicidal thoughts. Indeed it said that 55% said they had experienced a large increase in cases of anxiety and stress – while more than 40% reported a big increase in cyber-bullying.
As a result our overstretched hospitals are put under even more pressure as they report a surge in number of children admitted to Accident & Emergency centres for self-harm. Schools can’t cope either as 65% of schools said it was becoming ever more difficult to access mental health care support for these youngsters. 53% of schools that referred youngsters to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services said the services they encountered were “poor” or “very poor”.
Of course no one says that giving youngsters football pitches will solve all the problems of facing a rapidly changing world, ludicrously high expectations of parents, cyber bullying, inactivity, an obesity epidemic etc etc etc.
But football’s basic rules haven’t changed much since 1925 – before the internet, before the mass use of cars, before TV, before electrification of the country… a remarkable achievement in a world where virtually nothing else has remained the same. And that longevity says a lot for its attractiveness and durability. An investment in football is an investment in long-term well being.
And it remains the most popular sport, one that both sexes enjoy, one that only needs a simple pitch… It won’t attract every youngster of course, but it will give lots and lots of them a chance to enhance their physical activity, develop an enthusiasm, stop worrying about who is saying what on Facebook, stop eating junk food, stop watching TV. It is of course not the only element in solving the problem, but it is one part of the solution and it is so easy to implement.
As everyone working in mental health will tell you if you ask, “Early intervention is essential.” And this is what China has seen – having taken the country to the top rank in terms of academic learning, it now, like the UK, has an epidemic of mental health problems, and it is using football as part of its solution.
So just as the Chinese have been breaking their own transfer records week by week in bringing European players to China, and just as they have been buying up parts of clubs from Atlético Madrid to Manchester City, they are using football as a way to solve the mental health epidemic by building multiple facilities for their young in every town and city.
Already in China the top clubs are getting crowds of 40,000 plus. Investors are encourage to put money into building networks of coaching academies across China – and these are fed by the grass roots clubs that attract youngsters who are just there for the fun of it.
So what is happening in Britain? In March 2014 Sport England cut the amount of money it was giving to the FA for grassroots football by £1.4m because the FA had not used it for the right purpose. The FA’s excuse was that the weather had been against them, and to their eternal discredit the media printed that pathetic explanation in all seriousness.
Meanwhile throughout the country councils are cutting their provision of pitches on which football can be played as the government implements austerity cuts and spends money elsewhere.
The Local Government Association which speaks for 400 local authorities in England and Wales, says the current spending on developing the game at lower levels is pitiful. Councils have seen their budgets cut by more than 40 per cent since 2010, making it impossible for them to maintain local pitches.
Now the LGA is calling, as are others, for the Premier League to fund grassroots football. The trouble is, fans are also calling for the Premier League to cut prices. And fans (Arsenal fans are no exception) are calling for more money to be spent on transfers.
Plus clubs are spending vast sums on building new stadia. We’ve got ours, Tottenham, Chelsea, Everton etc etc all want theirs.
Oh yes, and we want top players at our club so let’s pay them top wages as they demand. The talk about a salary cap has vanished, but a salary cap is really the only way to stop money pouring into players’ pockets, and from there… Well, 35% of Premier League players are bankrupt within five years of stopping playing football so that tells you quite a bit about where the money goes.
So yes, maybe we should take money out of the PL and give it to grassroots football – but maybe we should do that along with other reforms, such as isolating the FA from any involvement in anything other than the FA cup.
Some people do try and link the issue to the failure of England to win any trophies since 1066. Sorry 1966; we lost in 1066. But that is surely a side issue compared to the mental well-being of our children.
I am not saying that providing lots of football pitches would result in an end to mental illness among children, of course not. I am saying it is one obvious way forwards, because not only is playing football fun, it is also healthy, and once you start doing something healthy there is a tendency to stop eating junk food and get away from a life of inactivity.
But what we have at the moment is the opposite effect. Grassroots football participation is falling. The number of 16-year-olds and over playing football declined by about 2 million in the last ten years, and as pitches are torn up, so that number is growing. 44% of people playing adult 11-a-side football cite ‘poor facilities’ as their greatest single concern or the reason why they stop playing.
It is a desperate state of affairs. Goodness knows how it will ever be sorted out.