‘It’s all about playing first-team games, making mistakes, learning from them and getting better’

MICHAEL Browne, who was the Head Coach of the ASPIRE Academy Football Programme for eight years, is currently in charge of  the organisational side of its Football Department.

He moved to Doha after serving as academy director at English club Charlton Athletic from 1998 to ’04. The Briton spoke to Doha Stadium Plus in an exclusive interview.

 

 ASPIRE is one of the best academies in the world. Do you think Qatar is making the most of it?

Qatar has several disadvantages in relation to the country. The most prominent is the small size of the population. So we know that we’ve to work with them.

One big advantage Qatar has is that it has ASPIRE. We’ve all the best players together in one place training together on a regular basis. We’ve a fantastic facility. We’ve very good staff and everything in terms of what you need in developing players.

In my opinion, Qatar doesn’t maximise the benefits of ASPIRE. Take the Qatar Under-19 team that played in the AFC Championship in the UAE for example. Our players formed the bulk of the squad. But they stopped training with Aspire in March ’10, and then trained with the Qatar Football Association staff and also at their clubs to prepare for the qualifiers, held in October ’11. The ’93 players and ’94 players then graduated in June, ’11 and June, ’12 respectively.

I believe they should’ve stayed in Aspire, and had shorter preparation periods for national youth team competitions, thus maximising the benefits of the academy.

I think if you’re going to make the most of Aspire, then you’ve to give ASpire the most opportunity to get the best out of players.

Secondly, there’s a big problem —   a lack of good quality matches for the players. When they’re at ASPIRE, the boys are playing against their counterparts from, for example, Anderlecht and Kashima Antlers. They’re very good teams and offer excellent competition for the players. But when they play in their clubs, the level is very low because the standard of the League, especially at the youth level, is very low. You don’t have enough good-quality players to make it a good-quality League and the matches that the boys play in don’t prepare them for international football.

Most players of the national U-23 and U-19 teams don’t play with their clubs’ first teams. That means the best young players at the clubs have limited opportunity of playing. That has to change.

 Do you blame the clubs for that?

In Qatar, the clubs need to improve their levels of professionalism. I recently read an article in which Mark Bresciano said promising young players shouldn’t come to Qatar. And unfortunately I think he’s right.

I’ve a vivid memory, two years ago… our best 17-18 players were talking to me, describing training in their club. I don’t want to mention the club. They said when they train, the senior players would tell them that they’re training too hard and they’ve to ease off because it was making the seniors look bad.

For me, that’s an indictment of Qatar football.

And when Bresciano says don’t go to Qatar, I think he’s right. The clubs will have to raise their level of professionalism — from the way the players train, their lifestyle… everything has got to be higher. And if the clubs can do that, then the national teams have a better opportunity to do well.

 

 What should the clubs be doing?

The clubs have to put in place programmes for their best young players. They need to make sure that their best youngsters play regularly. Look at Khaled Muftah, he’s now a regular with the Qatar national team. Had he not started at Al Wakrah, he probably wouldn’t have been now playing for the Qatar national team.

And the fact that Wakrah didn’t have many good young players meant he got regular first-team starts at the age of 17-18. And he’s moved on.

We now have got Akram Afif. He’s just 15 and already an outstanding prospect. He’s good enough to be involved in senior football now.

So if I was responsible for him at his club (Al Sadd), I would’ve involved him in the first team or made him regularly playing in the reserve team. He has gone to Sevilla and he’ll be playing there for the rest of the season.

Muad Salmi has gone to Sevilla as well.

They’ll stay there for the rest of the season. Akram is good enough to play with the same age-group at Sevilla and I hope he continues there for a longer period.

 

 When you designed the Aspire programme, weren’t you aware of such a scenario?

When we started, we didn’t have players of 17 or 18. We started with the younger age-groups. The problem emerged in the last three or four years, when players started leaving ASPIRE. Now, it’s getting worse because there’re more players leaving the academy. And the backlog is getting bigger and bigger.

It’s a concern the academy has raised on several occasions. People are working to address the situation, but they need to find a workable solution.

If you look at the way the clubs operate, every one of them has got at least one overseas striker. So how can the best young striker from Qatar get an opportunity?

If Akram (Afif) is looked after properly in the next few years, he’ll be an outstanding player for Qatar in ’18 and ’22.

But my concern is that he might not be.

 

 Where do things go wrong?

I know that (ASPIRE Academy Director General) Ivan Bravo recently spoke to the Qatar Football Association officials about the issue. There’s a rule change (7+4) from the ’14 season, which hopefully should help the Qatari players to some extent. But it won’t help in spreading the better players around. Most of them are accumulated at three clubs — Al Rayyan, Al Sadd and Al Gharafa.

If you look at Kharaitiyat, Sailiya or Khor, they’ve no good young players. Where are they going to get the good young players from, unless the big clubs allow some of the youngsters to move out?

Somewhere along the line, that has to happen.

There’re powerful people at every club. They’re doing what they think is right for their clubs, but not necessarily good for Qatar football.

Look at Paulo Autuori. He did a fantastic job with the Qatar U-23 team in the London Olympic qualification.

Players who featured in that team were one or two years younger than the opposition and almost all of them were from ASPIRE. They didn’t lose a game. With that group, it was a great achievement. It would’ve been even better for the coach, had the players got more first-team experience.

So imagine what happens when you go to the first team when your players aren’t playing. It makes it even more difficult. And when you look at the overall level in Qatar, and people like Bresciano saying it’s not a professional league, that the attitude is not right… and when you’ve all the national team players playing in that League, then you’ve got a big problem.

But too often, people blame the coaches.

 

 What should the federation be doing?

The QFA should create the right environment for them to develop. If we put our best young players in that environment, some of them will get to the top, some of them will fail. But at least, those who make it to the top will be in the Olympic, senior teams in the years to come.

Take Saleh Al Yazidi. He left ASPIRE two-and-a half years ago. At that time, he was outstanding. He played a couple of games with the Olympic team and several with the U-19 national team. He’s good enough to play first-team football this year. If he can’t get into the team at Al Sadd because they’ve got so many players, then let him play elsewhere. Next year, he can go back to Sadd. I think he may well find himself sitting on the bench playing the Reserve League, which isn’t good for him. He’s just an example.

 

  Are the clubs seriously thinking about player development?

If you look at top clubs around the world, loaning out their best young players to smaller clubs and bringing them back is a regular process. It isn’t difficult, but it needs people with the right will and right attitude to do it.

I may be wrong. But I would suggest that Sadd people haven’t spoken about the development of Saleh or Akram.

Look at what happened to (goalkeeper) Saad Al Sheeb. Six years ago, he was the most promising goalkeeper in Qatar by a long, long way.

In the next two years after graduating, he played for the Sadd reserve team, and even there he wasn’t a regular… he was alternating games. They were winning 8-0, 9-0, and never touching the ball, he went backwards. It would’ve been much better for his club and his development if he had moved to Kharaitiyat or Sailiya.

It’s all about playing first-team games, making mistakes, learning from them and getting better.

So I think the clubs have to take the responsibility.

 

 Are all the ASPIRE players really motivated enough to play for Qatar? 

I can say that the young players we’ve got now at ASPIRE are all motivated to play for Qatar. They aren’t worried about the money they’ll be earning.

Take Abdullah Taleb Afifa. When he was at ASPIRE, he wasn’t the best player, but his attitude was excellent. He worked hard and did everything properly. Now, he’s reaping the benefits of it.

It’s our responsibility to put our best young players in the right environment and ensure that they develop the right way. But why should the club coaches take interest in a team’s future when he knows that he’s not going to be there next season? Why?

 

 Do you seriously believe Qatar will’ve a strong team at the ’22 World Cup?

Qatar will have the players that enable them to have a decent team. I mentioned Akram (Afif). I haven’t seen a better striker of his age in all the teams that visit here.

We’ve players, but the key is that they should be managed properly in the next three or four years.

 

 Do you think all players are disciplined enough?

There’ll be players who fall off the rails and go wrong. It happens the world over. But if we produce three or four players every year from ASPIRE, two of them will go on and do very well, one of them will be average and the other might just drop out. But that’s football. All you can do is to give them the support and put them in the next level.