One week into the 2022 Fifa Under-20 Women’s World Cup in Costa Rica and with 24 games observed in seven days it has been quite a schedule. The proximity of the stadiums to each other in San Jose meant that we could attend four matches per day.
I really have been impressed with the standard of the games and tactical awareness of the players. There’s great physicality, some really technical and intelligent players and great displays of knowing how to manage a game.
Bearing in mind that most of the players are 18-19, there are some 17- and even 16-year-olds who have the potential to become world-class senior internationals. It’s very exciting to see how the standard of the game is developing, but for me there are many other interesting aspects involved in attending a tournament like this that genuinely have made me think, as a coach.
The experience of being in a competitive soccer environment, but on a completely different continent, really makes you think about different factors that can impact on game plans, player preparation and even just simple things, like the weather and food.
During my time at Cork City, when we travelled for European matches, part of my remit when going over to watch the opposition teams, was to evaluate the environment we would be in and to identify any factors that could impact on performance.
When you arrive for tournaments and European games there is such a quick lead into the matches, that there is very little time for recovery, should anything go wrong.
Simple things like drinking the water, eating the ice to make sure that it had no ill-effects on me, so clear information could be given to the players about what could impact on their digestive systems and energy levels.
Eating food in the hotel, sampling the menu and checking portion sizes to ensure there is enough food for players who are carbing up before matches.
Ensuring that traditional food served in the country you are visiting will meet the dietary and performance requirements of the players and making any adjustments to menus before arrival.
The weather can also be impactful, extreme heat in some places, extreme cold in others, and extreme rain like I’ve experienced here. It’s rainy season in Costa Rica so it can be 28 degrees and beautiful blue skies and within 15 minutes, it’s torrential downpours (like standing under a waterfall) and powerful thunder and lightning storms.
It changes so quickly, and the ground staff perform some incredible work in those types of conditions. Games can start in perfect weather and within 20 minutes can be suspended, because there is so much water on the pitch that ball simply does not move. Within 60 minutes, the weather clears, the games restart and the pitches are in really good condition because it’s just a normal part of soccer in this country.
In conditions like this, it’s imperative that teams have extra sets of kit to change into, and not have to be wearing wet kit or putting wet gear back on after a stoppage. That’s something that can be an issue for Irish clubs where budgets might only allow for one set of gear.
Time differences are also something to be aware of, particularly when there are a number of hours difference because it does take time for the body clocks to adjust. With teams I worked with previously, we often stayed on Irish time if there was only a two to three hour difference but when you get bigger margins, then adjustments become much more impactful.
Here, it’s seven hours behind Ireland, so getting in from games at 11pm local time is 6am Irish time, a whole night’s sleep.
But for me, one of the biggest things I’ve learned is a new level of understanding of the challenges that players and coaches can face in different parts of the world in order to reach the highest level of the game and realise their potential and ambitions. Globally, it’s not a level playing field in terms of opportunity.
It’s been so insightful and thought-provoking from a coaching point of view, in terms of what world-class looks like in different teams from across the world. The differing playing styles and traditions and how they transfer to the team and player identity are fascinating.
And it’s not just about the differences, it’s about the commonality too. How soccer can reach deep into the hearts of communities and societies, regardless of who is playing.
The incredible numbers of volunteers who contribute hugely to this, and all the tournaments like it, is so powerful and comes from a love for the game.
Last Wednesday, on the opening evening of this tournament, over 22,500 attended the match between host nation Costa Rica and Australia. It was an amazing attendance and atmosphere at the Estadio Nacional, and even though it was a defeat on the pitch for the home side, it was a victory in so many other ways.