Eat or be eaten
Henk Mariman has already had quite a career in football. Having worked for a.o. the Youth Academies of Sporting Lokeren, Germinal Beerschot and club Bruges, he now travels the world. As ‘Head of Football Development’ at Double Pass he analyses and advises clubs and federations worldwide. After all these years his eyes are still shining. Mariman speaks with the passion of a young boy who has just seen Messi score a goal for the first time in his life. We had a lengthy conversation about cultural differences, so-called ecosystems in sports and of course the myths of football. “In Spain of all places I learned that training within small spaces is not the Holy Grail of youth formation.”
Henk, let us go back in time for a second. You were one of the driving people behind the so-called ‘Belgian Project’ of Ajax, in the years of partnership with Germinal Beerschot. Many of today’s Red Devils were young players in that project.
“Yes, that was a wonderful time. I had the pleasure to work with the one and only Urbain Haesaert. Other top colleagues of that period were Simon Tahamata and Marc Noë, who still works at the club. We had an excellent team of youth coaches back then. Intelligent people who were keeping eachother sharp. There was indeed a lot of player potential. VErtonghen, Vermaelen, Alderweireld, Naingolan, Dembélé… very diverse actually, just like the city of Antwerp. I remember well how we introduced Marc Brys to the young Moussa Dembélé. Marc was manager of the first team just like today. I remember him saying: ‘well, he is obviously crazy talented, but he doesn’t have the guts for professional football yet.’ (laughs) Luckily the kid had a very good entourage there, who knew exactly how to work with him. We just had the knowhow and most of all we shared one vision. Winning games was not the objective there. Creating great players was. We would always encourage our youngsters to try and find solutions in difficult situations, and to always keep playing an attractive game. Well, those were the days. Good times.”
When you see all those guys play foot these days, do you feel any pride?
Of course I do. The Red Devils are one of the remarkable stories of today’s international football. There is so much potential and talent in our national team. Top players, every single one of them. Many strong personalities as well. So sure we are all proud about the quality of that team. Rightfully so. Of course, if we are completely honest… .”
“…we have to admit that we don’t get to see that level of play in our own competition. (thinks quietly) Look, seventy percent of the players in the Jupiler Pro League comes from abroad. That is… simply too much. These players are not the hot international profiles on the market, because we can not afford those anymore. Then what we also see is a growing amount of talented young players going abroad instead of siging up for a Belgian club. Why that is? Money reasons, of course. But of course, that is not the only reason why.”
So what causes that exodus then?
“There are a few different reasons. First, we lack full time professional trainers in our Youth Academies. Belgium only has… five or six that I can think of. In England we are talking an average of 17 full time coaches per club (!) In many other countries, not just the bigger competitions by the way, you can see how money is being invested in professional youth coaching. But here in Belgium, it is a rare phenomenon. I don’t want to wine or complain, but it is a plain fact we can’t ignore. In a smaller country like ours, youth formation should always be a priority. Because we simply can not win the battle for talent financially. There is a huge gap with the richer competitions. So let us focus on creating value and doing smart business by investing in all that young talent, and create an environment that makes them want to stay. You just have to wander through our cities and visit a few parks to discover the potential of our younger generations. It is a matter of choice. We should not talk about it, but just do it.”
Do you think there would be room for initiatives outside football clubs? Like a regional academy that brings together prodigies?
“I strongly believe we should keep educating our players within clubs. Look, we are talking topsport here. Competition between clubs will always be part of the game. Every club can develop their own vision, make their own choices. If your project is appealing to a player and his entourage, a club can definitely convince a player to stay and work his way into the first team. Every club that wants to stay competitive will have to this, by the way. There is really no choice. Investing in youth formation will be a choice for survival. Eat or be eaten.”