Laurent Prince: "I'm Not a Romantic."
The Technical Director of the Swiss Football Association (SFV) on promoting talent, preconceptions, and the heroes of his youth.
Michael Krobath: What was your first experience with the Swiss national football team?
Laurent Prince: It was in 1981 in Lucerne, at the World Cup qualifying match against Hungary. The game ended with a score of 2-2. I was 11 years old and working as a ball boy, so I was really close to the action.
Thirty-four years later, as the Technical Director, you are shaping the future of Swiss football. Is there a way to be even more successful than in the past decade?
If I had any doubts about that, I would not have taken this job. It is an extraordinary achievement to belong to the top ten percent in a sport played around the world. However, there is nothing wrong with us striving to permanently keep our place among the highest ranking teams in the world and, for once, to qualify for the quarterfinals at the European championship or the World Cup. At the same time, we need to be on our guard.
In what way?
Our success is based on a very stable training regimen that we have spent the past twenty years designing. Our strength lies in the fact that everyone pulls together: the Association, the clubs, both competitive and recreational athletes. I see certain warning signs that this system is being threatened.
You must mean possible compensation that clubs are demanding from the Association for recruiting international players. Individual players are reported to be in talks concerning that.
No, those are at best mind games. What I mean is the increasing number of young, talented players leaving the country. This phenomenon is nothing new and a compliment to our work in training young players, but it poses the risk that the clubs will lose interest in training young talent.
Why would that happen?
They invest a lot of money in training children and teenagers. It pays off only if the players complete their training and enter what's called the "refinement" stage, that is, they make the move from young amateur to professional. If the clubs lose their best players to foreign teams at the age of 16 or 17, that's a problem. First of all, they can never use the players in the Super League, and secondly, they let them go at far too low a price. It's pretty obvious that you pay less for a 16-year-old amateur player than for a 20-year-old who already has one or two seasons of professional football under his belt and has proven his skills.
Aren't you fighting a lost cause? The financial clout of top leagues outside Switzerland is getting stronger, increasing the temptation for players and their advisors.
I'm not a romantic. Of course, we will be unable to keep certain players from time to time. However, I do appeal to the players and clubs to have faith in the excellence of training in Switzerland. Those aren't empty words; they can be statistically proven. The few who manage to have successful careers despite switching leagues early are an exception, not the rule.
Do you see room for improvement in the often-praised Swiss training system?
We need to have the courage to make changes where necessary. From now on, we want to take even better advantage of each individual's potential. Our priorities lie in optimizing our talent management, cooperating with the interfaces between us and professional football, developing players' personalities, and planning their careers. We are also placing more emphasis on science and modern media, namely when analyzing matches and individual development.
Is it true that Swiss players are physically inferior compared to their international counterparts?
We see tremendous potential in the development of athletes from young players to professionals. That's why we have revaluated that area and created a new position. The duties of our new Head of Fitness, Michel Kohler, include continued professional development of our fitness coaches and further development of our training programs. Athleticism in football is a complex matter. It must match the demands of the game. Those who train like crazy to gain endurance or strength lose out on speed and flexibility.
Has past training not been tough enough?
For every position, we created requirements specifications, and we provide every player with individual training plans based on their performance diagnostics. Together with their clubs, they then have to implement those plans. That works quite well, but we need to work in a more structured manner here and become stricter during evaluation. If a player taking part in our Footuro program does not meet the requirements, there must be consequences. Period.
The road from amateur to professional is extremely rocky. What is the make-or-break factor?
There are many factors that work together of course: technique, cognitive abilities, athletic intelligence, speed. In the end, however, it is not the most gifted technicians who come out on top, but those individuals with intrinsic motivation. In other words, those who have an internal desire to perform.
The current national team is still very young and only just beginning to evolve. Is the next generation being obstructed from joining the national team for years to come?
They have just as much opportunity as the generation before them. Whenever a young player is better at his position than the current first-choice player, then we open the door for him.
Do you deliberately incite competition by regularly promoting young talent?
Our philosophy states that we should not exhaust our players but that they should be given time to develop and take one step at a time on the junior national teams. But one thing is also clear: We do not deliberately hold back an exceptional player like Breel Embolo, but we incorporate him into the national team, even if he is only 18.
Experts are raving about the players born in 2000. How do you feel?
There are definitely some players worth watching. However, I am also very keen on those born in 2001, who currently make up the under-15 team. They are the first group to have completed our Footeco program, and we will be scrutinizing them very closely. My first impression is that the level and breadth of quality is rising.
You are also in charge of women's football, which received unprecedented media attention thanks to the Swiss women's team participating in the World Cup. How can you take advantage of that?
The feedback was tremendous. Most of all, I am happy to see that the preconceived notions have finally been eliminated. Women are capable of playing football – in Switzerland too. We now need to ask ourselves how we are going to take all those girls who love kicking a ball around on the playground and get them on local teams. We have already started various projects to do just that.
Things could get crowded on the playing fields. So many boys are already wanting to play football that the clubs are no longer able to take them all in. Is football becoming a victim of its own success?
Today, roughly 10,000 matches are played across Switzerland every weekend. We are virtually at our limits, especially in areas with high population density. We not only lack playing fields, but also volunteers to work as junior coaches.
What can be done to improve the situation?
We are launching campaigns to recruit more volunteers. We are also trying to make it clear to legislators what the clubs do for society so they will be given the appropriate support and can continue doing their work. Besides school, no other institution does as much for socialization and integration as our football clubs. Several thousand children's coaches invest their time and energy for token compensation. I tip my hat to every single one of them.
Speaking of childhood, who were your favorite players when you were young?
Platini and, later on, Zidane. Both of them symbolized class, creativity, and physical presence. As for Swiss players, I admired Heinz Hermann, who was an elegant strategist.
And what was your biggest success as an amateur player or coach?
My biggest challenge was probably the time I coached the lower-league team FC Goldau. I was just 27 years old. My greatest success? I am still waiting for it to happen (laughs).