Are great footballers born or made?

The Northern Echo: RUNNING MAN: England midfielder Steven Gerrard RUNNING MAN: England midfielder Steven Gerrard

THE UK is home to the most watched football league in the world and has some of the world’s best players, most iconic stadiums and finest training facilities. Yet, despite Britain’s passion for football, our national teams have not always shone on the international stage.

Scientific research and exploration into football performance is a growing field of study. Thanks to modern technology, coaches and pundits can analyse everything from the distance a player runs during a match to the percentage of successful passes they make.

With the 2014 World Cup fast approaching, the question of which nation has the strongest team is on everyone’s lips.

Dr David Whitbread, senior lecturer in the Psychology of Education at Cambridge, examined some of the latest statistics and research surrounding football performance, including the training environment, benefits of playing on home soil and behaviour on the pitch.

CAN your training environment make you a better player?

THE fundamental question is whether the environment and the way in which young footballers practise can affect their ability. Are youngsters from certain footballing backgrounds better placed than others?

Francois-Xavier Li, of the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Birmingham, has found that in industrialised countries such as England, children play from a young age in a “standardised environment”.

As he says, “the boots, the balls, the grounds and durations of the games are all the same. This provides a safe environment, but not one that challenges players to perform in a variety of settings”.

In less modernised and industrialised areas, such as South America and Africa, the facilities are not as good as in the West and children tend to play in a more varied environment. You might expect that the countries with modern, standardised and safe conditions would produce better players and teams, yet Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay are three of the most successful teams in World Cup history.

Although African nations do not tend to do well at World Cups, lots of African players now feature prominently in Europe’s top leagues, in environments very different to the ones they grew up in.

In England, the FA is investing hugely in youth football by standardising and changing the guidelines for how it should be played, recommending smaller pitches and goals for under-12s. David Moyes, manager of Manchester United, actually described Wayne Rooney as “the last of the classic street footballers”. Li believes this loss will have a negative effect and suggests that it may be better to let young footballers develop more naturally and expose them to different settings.

WOULD the English national team do better at major tournaments if our players played in different leagues?

POSSIBLY not: of Spain’s 2010 World Cup squad, 20 of the 23 players played in Spain. Likewise, all of Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning squad came from the Italian league. There is no clear answer either way, but it certainly seems that having access to state-of-the-art facilities is not necessarily a prerequisite to becoming a toplevel professional footballer.

DOES playing on home soil increase your chance of winning?

WHEN it comes to the World Cup, people often focus on the host nation and the advantages that playing on home soil might bring them. But does playing in your own country really benefit you, or can the pressure from your fans have an adverse effect? The statistics suggest that being the host nation is more of an advantage than a handicap. Out of the 19 tournaments that have taken place, the host nation has won six times and been the runner-up twice. Furthermore, before the last World Cup in South Africa, the host country had never been knocked out at the group stages. And of course, England’s only World Cup win came on home soil.

Dr Sandy Wolfson, of the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University, has found that support is believed to inspire attacking, entertaining football and give confidence (though there’s evidence of a reverse effect if the audience becomes agitated). Not having to travel, sleeping in your own bed, being familiar with the venue, and following your normal routine are also helpful.

Additionally, Wolfson has found that referee bias might be implicated, adding: “It’s been shown that their decisions favour the home team. For example, more extra time is added at the end of each half if the home team is behind by a goal.”

Fascinatingly, she also found that there are surges of testosterone in players before a home match, whereas levels before an away match are normal. “The research therefore shows that hormones may create a more proactive, territorial attitude,” she adds.

Our understanding of the science behind a home advantage is already having real implications on the world of football today. Referees have recently been made aware of the findings around home bias, so it’s possible that they will act to ensure that their role in the home advantage is minimised in future.

THIS research questions some of the commonly held beliefs about factors affecting footballing performance.

The findings regarding training environments and behaviour on the pitch show that teams and players can use science to improve their performance; exposing young players to a wider variety of training conditions to become more adaptable; and capitalising on the benefits of playing on home soil. More thorough and extensive research certainly needs to be carried out, but the findings undeniably underline that there is science behind success in football; and who’s to say that England’s 2014 World Cup team couldn’t benefit in Brazil next summer?

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