The notorious Irish soccer pundit Eamon Dunphy once famously remarked, “You need dictatorships and poverty to produce great footballers.” But the results of a recent study by Queen’s University Belfast suggest that Dunphy was wrong – at least about the poverty part.
Dunphy was referring to the fact that South America has produced so many of the world’s great soccer players – men like Pele and Maradona, who escaped the slums of Brazil and Argentina to become two of the best players in the history of the game. And Northern Ireland’s greatest ever player, George Best, honed his skills in a rough Belfast neighborhood.
All this has led to the fairly widely held belief that gifted soccer players are more likely to come from deprived areas.
However, a study by Queen’s University has found that children from poorer areas are far less coordinated and have worse balance than children from wealthier neighborhoods.
The study looked at 239 children aged four and five, and 276 aged seven and eight. It measured their abilities at tasks of manual dexterity, as well as their ball skills and balancing ability.
Overall, the more affluent children scored 11 per cent higher. Half of the boys aged five in the ‘poor’ schools had co-ordination problems.
“It’s a myth that more working-class children will become footballers. It’s not that they are more co-ordinated, it’s that they are hungrier to succeed,” said Dr. Martin McPhillips, the study leader from the School of Psychology at Queen’s.
"Obviously, some are not suffering from co-ordination difficulties and can go on and be footballers. But if you go to a more advantaged school, there is more potential to be a footballer."
The research did not look at why there was such a difference in ball skills and coordination between poor kids and wealthier ones, but suggested that several factors are likely.
Mothers in poor areas are likely to have more problems in pregnancy, to endure more stress, and have a poorer diet. A toddler in a less-wealthy home will probably have a poorer diet, less access to play facilities, and less stimulation to develop motor skills.
Famous examples of well-to-do footballers include arguably the best player in the world today, Brazil's Kaka. The AC Milan star didn't come from the favelas like Pele, but has an engineer for a father and grew up in a middle-class family.
Former England international Graeme Le Saux attended university and is famous for being an avid reader of English broadsheet The Guardian.
A quick look at the Irish squad playing Italy tonight reveals hometowns like Tallaght and Cabinteely, but the best upbringing in the world couldn't improve the ball skills and co-ordination of a couple of them.