Belgium and Italy will be on opposing sides in Friday's EURO 2020 quarter-final but have more than a little in common when it comes to turning players into coaches.
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When Belgium and Italy go head to head in the UEFA EURO 2020 quarter-finals in Munich on Friday night, they will do so as two of the outstanding sides in the competition so far, both led by forward-thinking coaches – Roberto Martínez in the red corner and Roberto Mancini in the blue.
Both former professionals themselves, the pair had contrasting playing careers. Spaniard Martínez spent much of his career in England's lower divisions, while Mancini was one of the standout players in a talented generation of Italians, lifting the Serie A and UEFA Cup Winners' Cup titles with both Sampdoria and Lazio.
What they have in common is that they each stepped into the dugout immediately at the end of their playing careers, learning on the job while taking the required coaching qualifications.
Smoothing the pathway
Fast forward to 2021, and to help top modern players transition into coaching and encourage more talent to remain in the game, the UEFA Coaching Convention allows national associations to offer a specific course for long-serving professionals that comprises the content of both the UEFA B and UEFA A diploma courses.
The combined courses stipulate 240 hours of education based on the full A diploma course plus modules from the B course, with a 50-50 split between off-pitch learning and reality-based practical units on the pitch.
To qualify for the course, participants must have played at least seven full seasons in the top division of a league in a UEFA or FIFA member association. Some countries were quick on the ball, with Italy, for example, currently conducting a fourth combined A + B course for former top pros. Belgium has taken a different angle by offering a B diploma course for players currently active in the national squad during the spells when they are together on international duty.
Although many speak positively about the advantages of starting coach education while still active, one of the realities of today's game is that the workloads of top professionals make it difficult to blend playing with coach education. Italy were one of the front-runners in realising that a combined UEFA A + B course could accelerate transitions and shorten intervals between hanging up boots and moving into the technical area.
Back in 2012, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) organised a course attended by ten of the players who had become world champions in 2006, including Fabio Cannavaro, Gennaro Gattuso, Filippo Inzaghi, Marco Materazzi, Alessandro Nesta and Gianluca Zambrotta. Luca Toni and Morgan De Sanctis were among the familiar names at the second course in 2017; Thiago Motta and Andrea Pirlo at the third in 2018. The group currently negotiating the fourth course includes Alessandro Del Piero, Daniele De Rossi, Riccardo Montolivo and Christian Vieri.
"Examining topics in depth and speaking with other students are the most beautiful things about the course," says their colleague Federico Balzaretti, the international full-back who took a silver medal home from UEFA EURO 2012. "And subjects like psychology and data analysis in which I have fewer skills but which are very important for a coach. I also love terminology: as a coach you must communicate clearly with your players."
Andrea Pirlo, in an interview for the FIGC's coach education magazine, said: "When you are studying to become a coach, you open your mind and you start thinking about solutions that before, as a player, you didn't."
Renzo Ulivieri, Italy's director of coach education, acknowledges that the courses require a different approach. "In the combined UEFA B and A course, we can avoid some of the technical aspects that we have in other courses," he explains. "After all, we are dealing with great ex-professional football players, so they are perfectly familiar with the details of technique. What we have to teach them instead is how to correct other players, exploiting the advantage of their own technical level. They wouldn't be great football players if they didn't possess excellent football technique, but teaching is completely different. We have to teach them how to teach."
The Belgian way
The Belgian course is unique in that it allows the participants to meet UEFA Coaching Convention requirements by capitalising on the periods of time when the Red Devils get together for international double-headers. A parallel project has been designed for members of the women's squad (a mix of current and former players), which is also a ground-breaking innovation.
The use of precious time during get-togethers evidently requires full support from the national team coach – and Martínez has been unstinting.
"Belgian football has produced a golden generation, and it's a unique moment when you become the world's No1," he said. "So our aim is to prepare these players to extend their influence on Belgian football beyond their playing days. We don't want to lose them the moment they retire. We want to offer them the opportunity to make the transition from playing to coaching as smoothly as possible. So within the FA, we designed a plan to create a new pathway."
Logistics are based on assigning one day of each get-together to course activities, and provisions are made for players who are injured or not selected. Participants are provided with online work and given alternative dates to attend sessions at the national training centre in Tubize. Martínez admits to being surprised by the response from the players.
Roberto Martínez, Belgium coach
"I started asking players in 2018 if they would be interested in this sort of course. I didn’t try to persuade them or pressurise them – just asked if they would like to participate. I thought that maybe ten or so might be interested, so it was a surprise to get 23. And we had feedback from a lot of ex-internationals who wished they had been given an opportunity like this.
"Players like Romelu Lukaku, Jan Vertonghen, Kevin De Bruyne are the same generation but, within that, there's quite a wide range of ages and levels of experience. And then they are playing at the best clubs in England, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Italy, so they come to the course from different footballing cultures and from different dressing rooms. Doing the coaching course means that they don't just talk to each other as players and that adds a dimension to the group.
"The other very important thing is that the participants begin to think as coaches. As a player you tend to focus on details in your own game, but when you begin to look through the eyes of a coach you are encouraged to broaden your horizons and think more about the other components in the game. Apart from the technical and tactical aspects that they study, they become familiar with organisational issues and a structured approach through tactical periodisation and so on. More importantly, thinking as a coach enhances their authority, leadership qualities and decision-making. All this goes with them back to their clubs. So I'm sure this is better than waiting till retirement age to start your coaching qualification process."
A step on the ladder
Time will tell whether the Belgian project will inspire other national associations to follow suit. Is it enough to allow top players to embark on coaching qualifications once they retire? Or is it also viable to encourage them into coaching while they are literally and figuratively on the ball?
Evidently a few more rungs need to be climbed on the ladder towards a top-level coaching career. Anyone who wishes to go on towards a UEFA Pro diploma course in the future will be required to complete at least one season as head coach at elite youth or senior amateur level, or as assistant coach in the professional game, so that all the knowledge and experience acquired in their courses can be tested and improved in a real coaching environment before moving up to the top rungs.
Martínez believes that encouraging active players to take an interest in coaching will yield dividends for Belgian football.
"It’s great that the players begin to think like coaches and I'm convinced that in six years, maybe, or certainly within the next decade, we will see quite a few of them in action as coaches – which can only be good for the future of Belgian football."
Kevin De Bruyne agrees with his boss about the benefits. "The project has provided me with a great opportunity to look beyond my playing days, while also benefitting the way I look at that game right now as an active footballer," says the attacking midfielder.
"It's important for every player to consider what comes next, no matter what stage of their career they are at, and the course has been an enjoyable way of doing that. To be able to fit it in around trips with the national team is a huge benefit and is hopefully making us as a squad think more about the game. That can only serve to help us out on the pitch."