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Despite their lack of tactical aptitude, the raw spirit of Ethiopian's youngsters taught Vegalta staff a lesson on when to train players and when to simply let them play

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By Hideto Shimizu

"Vegalta!" shouted the first boy we met after arriving at Lalibera. Having heard "Japan," "Nakata," and “Tokyo" shouted in my travels, this was the first time anyone has shouted 'Vegalta' at me.

Our first stop was Bulbula, a rural high school 30 minutes’ drive from Lalibera and 2,400 meters above sea level. We were surprised at how sloped the school’s playing field was. It wasn't a pitch so much as it was a hill, with a large incline from left to right. The ground itself was uneven, with sand-filled holes that resembled golf bunkers. It was enough to shock us Japanese, all too used to complaining about poor artificial pitches and bad bounces.

Among the 20 or so members of the school’s football club that greeted us, around half were girls in long skirts and sandals or bare feet

But it wasn’t just the pitch that surprised us. Among the 20 or so members of the school’s football club that greeted us, around half were girls in long skirts and sandals or bare feet. It was enough to to make a traditional coach faint.

We had them split into two teams and form circles in order to do lifting exercises; speaking frankly they weren’t very skilled. They didn’t fare much better in keep-away practice, as many of the children were embarrassed to be in the centre of the circle. But when coach Kazunori Inoue started an 11-on-11 game, the kids played as though they’d been released from their cages.

Both boys and girls ruthlessly chased after the ball; the girls in their full skirts ran at full speed, while the boys cut in to steal the ball and break through with brilliant dribbling. I was shocked at how they kept up their speed despite the pitch condition.

Meanwhile, I failed to impress after my foot caught a ‘sand trap’ on my first touch, drawing laughs from the crowd. I didn’t play well at all; even though I’d thought I was one of the most skilled in practice, those kids were really playing football and enjoying the hell out of it. Their spirit left a deep impression on Inoue in his first visit in 2011.

"Here in Ethiopia, it doesn’t matter what their skill level is; talented or not, they play hard"
-Kazunori Inoue, Vegalta Sendai academy coach

“This is the origin of football,” he told me. “Here in Ethiopia, it doesn’t matter what their skill level is; talented or not, they play hard.

"I came to Ethiopia to teach, but I’ve actually learned a lot.”

With an abundance of information available, many Japanese coaches are implementing practice regimens used by top European clubs and national teams. But is it really necessary?

“I’ve always wondered why Japanese teams all play the same style,” Inoue recalls a foreign acquaintance saying after watching a local youth team. But that coach finally understood: from the warm-up to the training program, the team simply copied what other teams were doing.

“Instead of imitating what other programs do,” Inoue posited, “coaches should look at what the kids need to learn and adjust to their needs.

For example, Bulbula’s coaches eagerly asked the two Vegalta coaches about tactics. With the number of TV satellites rising in Ethiopia, there are more chances to watch top European competitions. Even the shoeless children with makeshift balls could call out Shinji Kagawa’s name to me.

it’s understandable that local coaches are interested in teaching their players top-level tactics, but Inoue himself was confused as to how he could teach them

it’s understandable that local coaches are interested in training their players top-level tactics, but Inoue himself was confused as to how he could teach them.

“If they can remember tactics, they’ll win more matches; but what would they accomplish in the long run?” he wondered. “If they had ambitions of playing in Europe, it might even be better to let these kids keep playing as they’re playing.

"Only a chosen few can become pros. I’ve been training Vegalta youth for 20 years, but only four have graduated to the top team. These kids move on to go to school and start careers, and we must consider what we can do to help them."

Ethiopia has a long footballing history, having participated in the first-ever African Cup of Nations in 1957. But they’ve yet to play in a World Cup final, and in terms of actual results are still a developing nation. But their development represents the roots of football. Their play is simple, pure, and fun. It’s important to learn from the bleeding edge of the sport in Europe, but to see the sport’s starting point here in Lalibera was a stimulating experience.

Goal.com Japan Chief Editor Hideto Shimizu has published the books “100 Ways to Enjoy Watching Football," "100 Practice Methods for Defenders and Goalkeepers," and "120 Set Piece Tactics," among others. He can be reached on Twitter at @kaizokuhide

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