x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Barcelona have Messi, Xavi and Iniesta ... planned or plain lucky?

Good sporting cultures produce success but success can also be a cyclical phenomenon as Australia is discovering across the board.

Barcelona have an excellent system to develop talent in place, but it might also be a coincidence some of the world's best footballers happened to be at same place at same time, writes our columnist. Adrian Dennis / AFP
Barcelona have an excellent system to develop talent in place, but it might also be a coincidence some of the world's best footballers happened to be at same place at same time, writes our columnist. Adrian Dennis / AFP

Not a single Australian is ranked among the world's top-10 male squash players. Only two are in the top 50. That is an astonishing fact, because there was a time in the 1980s and 1990s when a squash elite without Australia was unimaginable.

Alongside Pakistan, their players dominated the rankings, won all the important individual and team titles and generally went about exerting the kind of dominance over the sport as they did over many others.

It was an inevitable kind of dominance, because it allied a natural national affinity for sport to a set of systems and structures and produced champion after champion.

The systems of Australian sport were so superior to anywhere else's in the world they could not help but succeed.

Funding for squash in Australia has recently been cut and public courts in parts of the country are shutting down, but thanks to a continuing partnership between Squash Australia and the Australian Institute of Sports (AIS), the infrastructure remains at par, if not better, than most squash-playing countries.

Yet, no champions to match Geoff Hunt, brothers Rodney and Brett Martin, Rodney Eyles or Chris Dittmar.

A while ago, the question of their decline was put to James Willstrop, one of the leading players on the tour.

"Things are a little cyclical," he said. "Everything has its generations. England is having a very strong time at the moment. Egypt also. It's their time and has been for the last couple of years. You can't keep producing generations like Rodney Martin and the rest.

"I don't know why it would be less strong. They have their systems, the AIS but sometimes I think it is just down to luck. The systems are in place, we are trying, but we cannot just keep repeating a fantastic generation."

Willstrop hit upon one of the fundamental questions of sport, to which we keep returning: do good systems produce success, or is success a cyclical phenomena, prone to periodic emergence of exceptional talent?

Right now, this seems particularly relevant.

Australia's cricket team has been in steady decline since 2008, but this year it has reached a rare low: six consecutive Test losses and, like the recent shellacking at Lord's – see gallery – most have not been remotely close.

Much of the analysis has been scathing critiques of a failing system and infrastructure that was once the world's envy.

Everyone wanted to do it the Australian way, so much so that England appropriated many of the procedures and processes, adapted them, and are now beating Australia because of it.

Australia's system is still in place, but, it is argued, its priorities are wrong.

It has not progressed as the world has. The wrong people are in charge.

This is the gist, which is fine and perfectly reasonable, but does it over-egg the importance of that very system?

More pertinently, does it underplay the simple fact that the current crop of Australian cricketers is just not that good?

Look at it the other way.

When the Australian way was producing legend after legend, was the role of the system producing them overplayed?

Could it not have been just that they happened to have a bunch of great individuals emerge around the same time, and found a succession of great leaders to mould them into great sides with great cultures so that, whoever stepped in, however good they may have been, could not help but be infected with a bit of greatness?

Albert Benaiges is a fair guide on these matters.

Running the academy at Al Wasl now, he was one of the heads of Barcelona's revered La Masia academy, responsible for enshrining the Barcelona style that the world fell in love with and brought so much success.

But what happens when Messi, Iniesta and Xavi are no longer there or, as happened last year against Bayern Munich, a new, better system comes along?

In a 2011 interview, unprompted Benaiges pondered Barca's golden age and the role of an academy.

"A working style has been achieved at Barcelona," he said.

"It is a bit of a coincidence that you have three of the best players of the world there currently."

Also, "the type of training you give is one thing, but it also depends on the market. Sometimes you have quality players available, other times you don't … it depends".

This sounds like an answer, the right one, that any infrastructure or system can only be as good as the raw materials that are fed into it.

Maybe the counter-argument, that it is the job of a good, efficient system to turn average and raw material into something superior is not actually a counter, but another valid answer.


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