Developing Youth Soccer in Azerbaijan

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Daryl Willard is the Sports Director for the Football Association of Azerbaijan. Prior to that he worked under Arsenal Legend Tony Adams at Gabala FC – also in Azerbaijan. Daryl has also worked as an academy coach at both Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, working with their elite young players. He recently completed his UEFA Pro license.

What are the major goals that the Azerbaijan Federation is working towards? Are the timelines for when they should be achieved?

Our goal is simple – to develop young players to a standard which can compete in Europe. The existing infrastructure was not great, in terms of the number of young players involved in the game. There isn’t much sport in school and football is not a national sport. As a result there have been a lot of hurdles for us to cross, which gives us a challenge every day. Firstly we wanted to train coaches who could work with 7-11 year olds. That’s a huge task which is still ongoing, but is very important. A few years ago players didn’t get into the game until they were 13-14, so now that we have an under ten division we have increased the amount of training they get. This is a long term process though and there is no definite deadline for achieving it. Looking at the players coming through now though, they are must stronger than they were before, so progress is already being made.

Azerbaijan is hosting the first European Games this year. They have beach soccer as an event but not the regular game. Has that affected your priorities in any way?

Public funding for sport in Azerbaijan has been focused more on making sure that the upcoming European Games Olympic event is a success. We are treading water slightly at the moment, waiting for it to take place, then hopefully we can continue to move forward with our plans. Wherever you are in the world though things are always appearing like this – your job is to find a way to work around them and keep the program moving. We have the Formula One motor race here next year for the first time too, which will undoubtedly compete for the attention of the public. Our job is to control what we can control and I believe we are doing that.

How do you control the curriculum of what players are learning in their formative years?

We are not directly setting the curriculum for the players. We’re trying to educate a generation of coaches to go out there and do it. Being a coach of a U9 team is very difficult because there is a culture out there of the older age teams being more prestigious – I should be coaching the 17 year olds, not the 9 year olds. In the past it has even been used as a punishment if a coach didn’t win at the older ages to be sent down to work with the younger players. We spend a lot of time telling them that actually those younger years are the golden age group that will have the most impact on the future of their players. I spent two years at Tottenham Hotspur working with players in that age group and had so much fun with it. Now I see them in the England U17 side and you see how important that foundation work was for them.

We focus on the technical side of the game, getting players more touches, giving them decision making situations and small-sided games. Line drills were very common here so we have tried to move coaches away from that towards an environment where kids actually enjoy playing football. Historically the coaches have had a win at all costs mentality, which can cause the players to leave the game from an early age.

Is there a style of play that the Azerbaijanis have? Are you trying to maintain and develop that playing style?

The style from the Soviet era was traditionally run, run, run, and have a high work rate. There is still that mentality that the harder you run, the more work you are doing. This causes them to forget that actually playing football is a huge part of the game. There are three Dutch, four German coaches and me here trying to produce players who can play football and not just kick it and run. So that is a huge part of the job.

Several similar sized countries have had success on the world stage in recent years (Belgium, Portugal, Czech Republic, and Switzerland). Is it realistic for Azerbaijan to aim for the same success? Do you try to learn from the experiences of others?

I’m not sure population comes into it. If you look at Costa Rica in the last World Cup they have only a few million people and were one of the most entertaining teams. If you can find a system and philosophy that works you can produce players. Before we worry about the world stage though, we need to be better in our region. Currently the countries around us are better at the game than we are so we have to start with improving there. With Georgia next door, and Armenia who have done very well in recent years, Iran and Russia… We have to close that gap, which I believe we are doing, but there is still a long way to go, and that starts with working at younger age groups.

Physically Azerbaijanis tend to be smaller – they’re not big like the Germans or English can be, so they have to learn to play football and win matches in a different way rather than just running. We are developing technical players who can solve the problems that are in front of them.  In five years I would hope to show significant results in the region.

Which sports are you currently competing with?

Azerbaijan does well in individual sports – particularly wrestling and boxing. They won medals at the last Olympics for wrestling. It can be difficult for us when we are not the dominant sport in the country. I don’t think we have the same stigma here that you have had in the U.S. when it comes to comparing soccer to their more traditional sports. Much of the trouble we have here is parents believing that their children are better at the game than they are. I’ve had parents ask me whether their son will get signed for Barcelona since he is the best player on their ten year old team here. When you try to explain the reality, people can take it negatively. We have to be honest to them and that is very important so that we are no leading anyone on false expectations.

What are the facilities like for grassroots and elite players?

More than half of Azerbaijan’s population live in the capital city Baku. Despite that there are significantly more football pitches outside the capital than there are in it. There are around five stadiums here for all of those people in the city, so our biggest challenge has been to find investment in building more pitches for children to play on. Baku is a thriving metropolis and everything is built on, which means there is a lack of available space.

Azerbaijan is a predominantly Muslim country. Do girls and women play soccer at any level?

Yes we have a young Spanish coach here who has done a fantastic job with the women’s game here. She has many challenges ahead of her but the football is improving for sure. There are some issues outside of the game that they have to deal with, but you got those in other countries too (including England). It is a long road ahead but it is a growing area of the game here.

When players reach the highest levels of the game there, where do they go next?

A lot of the players go to Turkey at the moment because the language is very similar. We would love the day when we can produce a player for a European team. One of two so far have had experiences but come back very quickly. Maybe they don’t understand how tough it is out there or they feel homesick, but it hasn’t worked out yet. We would like them to get out there so that they can learn from other cultures and see how varied the game can be.

How much of a culture shock was it moving to Azerbaijan for you?

When I moved out I was 27 and it was a huge culture shock for me. I worked for a team with Tony Adams in a mountainous part of the country, three hours from the capital. The simple things in life you really missed, and it took three months to get over that initial surprise and to settle in. Now I live in Baku, have my family here and it has become the norm for me. I miss things about coaching in England, but I feel like it was a closed shop for me. If I was still there I doubt I would even have my A license because coaching opportunities are so limited there. I have a UEFA Pro license but I can’t even get an interview for jobs over there at the moment! I’m very happy that I made the move here, and I love getting to do interviews like this were I’ll get inundated by young coaches who want advice for their licenses and coaching. Any chance I get to help other people I do, because there were senior figures in the game who helped me in the same way.

What has your experience of the UEFA Pro License been like? How different has it been from the A license?

All in all it took about twelve months, with five or six modules throughout the year. Each took between a week and ten days, which meant someone from UEFA flying out here to lead the course. Modules included tactics, management, psychology, fitness, and training. The main focuses are the tactical and management pieces though, which is different from the A license where it was more pitch-based training. The Azerbaijan FA hosted the course in cooperation with the German FA, so instructors would come out here from there. We did fly to UEFA headquarters in Nyon [Switzerland] for a week to meet some big names in football. Howard Wilkinson was my tutor there: he was the last English manager to win the league [highest division in England], so to get to spend time with him was an incredible experience.

Was having the Pro license a requirement of your job or just something you wanted to do?

It was am ambition I have had since I was 16 years old. I set myself goals and targets, which may not have looked very realistic at the time but have turned out to be spot on, actually. I accepted I wasn’t going to be a professional footballer so my goals turned to coaching. I wanted to get the A license by age 30 and Pro at 35, and I’ve reached it by 32. Being a manager and head coach has long been an ambition of mine, so this course was the natural next step really.

So what goals do you have for your career for the next 5-10 years?

I enjoy the position I’m in now, but I’d like to be coaching more. My next step would be to find a position where I am coaching professional footballers on a daily basis. Whether that’s as a head coach or an assistant, we’ll see. That could be anywhere in the world. Being a sporting director for a country at the age I am, I must be doing something right, and I think that puts me in a good position. Five years ago I would never have imagined I would get to come to Azerbaijan, so it’s hard to know where the next step will take me.

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