Football in the world is changing, and Lebanon is no different.
The Lebanese Football Association (LFA) is certainly looking towards the future. New regulations have to be implemented in order to improve the youth leagues, as well as “youthening” the senior league.
The hard-working team who’s monitoring this renovation can be represented by coach Roy Abi Elias, a UEFA A license holder.
FA Lebanon chatted with the newly appointed youth development manager at the LFA to discuss all the new changes and long-term projects in the youth department.
Even though his job description limits his role to only managing the youth teams (Under 13 until Under 20), Roy Abi Elias can’t overlook what’s going on in the grassroot department (lower than Under 12).
“In order to develop future players, you need to start from the source. If we don’t get it right at the grassroots level, you can forget about youth development.”
In order to assure a smooth transition of players through these departments, Abi Elias founded a network between the decision makers in each department. Something that was neglected in the past.
Even though he has only been appointed some weeks ago, you can see what Abi Elias can bring to the table. The LFA has decided to add a fourth youth league, the Under 14, while reforming the existing youth leagues to become Under 16, Under 18 and Under 20 instead of Under 15, Under 17 and Under 19 respectively.
“Starting at the U-15 is a bit late for the kids to compete in the official tournaments. We aligned our competitions with the AFC regulations so players are more prepared, and we can scout them better.”
Abi Elias admitted that there is a gap between youth and senior football in Lebanon. After playing in the U-19 league, most clubs feel that their players aren’t ready mentally and physically for senior football. Consequence: more players warming the benches and eventually losing interest in football and quitting the sport.
“The Under 20 league is important because it can help closing the gap between youth and senior football. The new system will ease the transition from the youth level to the senior level.”
Such reforms couldn’t have come in a better time. In the current economical situation, the clubs have changed their business model and are shifted their interests to their youth teams in order to make a profit in the future.
Not only did the LFA change the structure of the youth leagues, but also they instated some rules to create a more “youthful” senior premier league and second division. For example, clubs are not allowed to register more than eight 30+ years old players in their roster and can only field 5 of them at a time.
Moreover, clubs must play at least 1 U-22 player for 600 minutes per season, or 2 players for 800 minutes or 3 players for 1200 minutes.
“The new regulations will have a positive impact on the national team; this is where our priority is. We want to develop youth players for them to represent the country in all age groups, and maybe get the chance to travel abroad and play in top leagues.”
“I think it’s an exciting time for football, in regards of the football reconstruction in Lebanon, despite the economical and other problems that could slow our progression.”
According to Abi Elias, a handful of Lebanese youth players can compete at the highest European level in their age groups. It’s a matter of keeping them motivated to continue their development.
“Academies are more invested in developing players than clubs for financial reasons, but this approach limits the number of players with the ability [to play in Europe].”
These are not the last changes we will see in the youth department. Current youth tournaments are almost 4 months long, it’s far shorter if a team doesn’t qualify for the final four. Therefore, this is not enough time for a player to develop right. “We are looking to make the competition twice as long.”
“There is an idea to reform the leagues to become a double fixture tournament in both its stages (first round and final four).”
Competitiveness is another problem regarding the youth league. Usually, the teams that qualify to the final four lose a few points, if any. Therefore, teams that lose a game or two in the early stage of the competition tend to tank the rest of the league.
“Another idea is to change the final four into a final eight in order to raise the competitiveness of the league.”
However, this is not enough. The youth department is looking at another strategy to keep clubs interested in the league even when they can’t make it to the final four.
The idea is to create a ranking system for the teams to keep competing in the league and play for rewards to be received in a grading system for the academies. This system will grant academies with an official badge that indicates the state of the academy. Several factors will come into play, like the infrastructures, quality of coaching, number of teams … Meeting requirements will give you more points and eventually a higher grade.
“We have goals for the federation and the national team, but to do that we need to create a philosophy. The more training a coach gets, the more his players develop. It’s the domino effect.”
It’s not just about clubs. The idea is to create a profile for each position in what serves the vision for how the NT will be playing, not just as a team but as individuals too. This will be the cornerstone of the talent identification system at the LFA.
“We are looking into forming regional teams formed by the best players from this region’s teams and creating a competition between them.”
This will raise the level of competition for the players. It will also fill the gap between club and national team football. For this idea to work, the LFA must create a process to develop qualified coaches that meet the criteria to be able to implement the same philosophy at the national team.
“Regional clubs will help us identify the potential talents for the national team sooner, thus develop them better and ease their transition to the national team.”
However, Abi Elias admits that this will not be an easy ride for the LFA.
“Everybody at the federation knows that it’s time to change. However, there are many obstacles in front of us that we must tackle soon.”
One of the obstacles that coach Roy was talking about is the willingness of the clubs to co-operate. Talking about his time as the U-19 coach, he admits that the try-out system isn’t ideal and must change.
Another issue that came up is that clubs were not letting their players go on national team duties.
“This is a huge obstacle, but I think with the new system, such problems will be resolved, and clubs wouldn’t mind letting their players go to the national team.”
In the Middle East, development is often sacrificed by decision-makers to get some instant results. Something that coach Abi Elias describes perfectly. “Development needs patience and that’s something the region lacks. The Arabs hire you today but want results yesterday.”
The newly appointed youth department manager admitted that the last 10 years he spent in Lebanon helped him understand how things work here and how to stir the waves into his advantage, in order to implement his revolutionary ideas.
“When I first came to Lebanon, I wanted to change things fast. With time, I knew I had to adapt and change things slowly. And here I am, glad to be part of the change.”