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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Pagonis

Kano philosophy aims to make national team success possible through grassroots connection

In a country filled with academies promising to take young footballers to the next level, the Kano philosophy takes a different approach. Co-founder Ehsan Popal spoke to Front Page Football about his program's strategy, its connections to Japanese football, and the long-term goal of creating a strong love for the game in Australia.

Kano runs football programs in New South Wales and Victoria with a strong focus on accessibility for participants. (Kano Football)

In 2011, whilst still playing in the NPL NSW, Ehsan Popal and former business partner Matt Sim decided to be the change they wanted to see in Australian football. Both were underwhelmed by the private academy models abundantly available around the country and identified that adequate resources were not always present for young footballers just entering the grassroots system. They felt it affected Australian football's top level in the long run.

"We were both playing in the NPL space, and we were aware of a lot of the academies around, but we weren’t really interested in the academy model. We were very passionate about training kids at the local level, below the academy level, especially in community clubs, so that they could be provided with resources," Popal told FPF.

"We thought the player pool, especially at the entry-level, wasn’t at the standard, and there weren’t many resources going to that side of football, so we delved into it to ensure that we can have a very strong base of football so the Socceroos and the Matildas eventually have a larger player pool. It is something that came out of the idea of passion for coaching kids and just ensuring their foundational football is resourced and equipped."

Thus, Kano Football was born, and in 2023, it comprises just under 100 coaches between New South Wales and Victoria. Popal explained in detail the thinking behind a philosophy that began over a decade ago.

"We are not an academy; we are a philosophy that is really entrenched in developing a culture, and what we mean by that is that if we can get every five, six, seven, eight-year-old playing football, and playing football for longer, it develops that culture in Australia."

"As you may or may not know, the MiniRoos soccer season at community clubs only runs [for] 16-18 weeks a year; that’s very low compared to countries we are aspiring to be like at a national level, so for us it is very important to ensure every child that walks past that white line is impacted by a really strong philosophy of football at the grassroots level."

Not every child will end up being a Socceroo or a Matilda, so the goal of this project, according to Popal, has always been planting a seed to create a ripple effect that can last a lifetime in the football world.

"That also means the focus isn’t about them becoming professional footballers but them falling in love with the ball. Ultimately, some of these people will play at a higher level; some will end up being committee members later in their lives, and some will be coaches. It has an adverse effect on our football ecosystem because it develops football skills but also skills for them to take and then give back to football," he said.

The grassroots model Kano operates allows the program to make deeper personal connections with its participants, and coaches are instructed to ensure parents become an active part of the development process. Parents are educated about helping their children to be proactive in their football at home, and in turn, Kano operates with local communities to ensure the cost of running the program does not fall on the participants.

"That environment is about connecting club, home, and community, and I believe if you can have that connectivity between those three, you are going to have people more organically playing football, practising and playing, away from organised structures," Popal said.

"A lot of the community clubs and schools that we’ve worked with, we’ve worked to ensure parents don’t pay. For example, some schools we work with pay something like $3.50 a session; in some clubs, kids are paying nothing. It is about us strategising and consulting with these clubs to show them the model we have. We have a very unique model so they can invest their money into football development and make the game inclusive instead of restrictive."

During his early days operating Kano, Popal came across an American football coach based in Japan named Tom Byer, and what stood out to him was Byer's 'football starts at home' philosophy, which is also the title of one of his books.

Popal stated that coaches work with players and parents every session, ensuring they complete sessions at home and encouraging them to share their progress through an online platform, where they are praised and receive feedback on their technique. He pointed out that many of the world's best footballers have stories of family members influencing them at home during their developmental stages, and he wants young Australian footballers to have similar experiences.

Another aspect of Byer's story Popal was absorbed by was the Japanese culture, both on and off the pitch. Initially, he was intrigued by a Tom Byer article titled, 'Linking grassroots to national team success' as it was what Kano's long-term vision was all about.

After contacting Byer, Popal organised to visit the coach in Japan within a fortnight, and what he saw left him stunned.

"He (Byer) talked about how, in Japan, there is not a massive gap between community and rep level. I went there and saw the programs and what they did; I was completely absorbed by the culture, the football and non-football culture. The discipline is so strong, and they are so technical, my eyes were open, thinking, 'Wow, they play football for 11 months a year; this is why they are so successful, and they’ve got so many players coming through."

In 2017, Popal started taking teams to Japan to experience a different culture, on and off the pitch, before officially launching Japan Camp last year to connect Australian and Japanese football at a foundational level. He believes the differences between Australia's laid-back, fun-loving culture and Japan's disciplined and structured culture are beneficial in an educational setting for both the travelling Australian players and their Japanese hosts.

"A lot of Australian teams go to Europe on tours, but I don’t think they’re going to learn much culturally because they are quite similar to us in Australia. But when you go to Japan, it is a completely different place, and it is a European standard of football. We take them to play 10-12 matches in six days, intensive games every day, and a camp to really better themselves as people, to get stronger mentally and physically. We want Australians to go there and learn from the Japanese so we can come back here and add to our football ecosystem," Popal said.

Most recently, Japan Camp hosted a group from Football South Australia who played multiple matches against their Japanese counterparts. They even heard former Adelaide United captain Stefan Mauk, based in Japan, speaking about his career and providing them with tools for their mental wellbeing as athletes.

"They were fantastic because it is rare to find, in Australia, 13-14-year-olds that when they are on the pitch, they are not arguing with each other. I couldn’t find a more respectful group," Popal shared on his most recent Japan Camp trip with the Football South Australia group.

"They obviously found it a little bit challenging playing some top teams. But they were an amazing group of kids and coaches who are open-minded about connecting with Japan and setting a really high benchmark for, ultimately, Football South Australia, if they want to be the leading developers of talent in Australia. They’ve got some really good players from there, but it was a real eye-opener for them in Japan."



Through their local community work and Japan Camp, Kano is trying to change Australian football culture from the bottom up by gradually integrating parts of the Japanese system. Popal strongly believes it is why Japan has many technically competent players; he used junior grassroots club football to demonstrate his point.

"Take Campbelltown City in South Australia, for example. A basic community club like Campbelltown, the Campbelltown of Japan, will have their kids train twice a week from Under 6 to Under 12; they all do two hours each, then on the weekends, they will usually do a half-day of either matches or practice, and this runs for 11 months a year. But in Australia, this probably runs once or twice a week for 60 minutes, and then on the weekend, there is only one match," Popal explained.

"Can you see, with that kind of volume, why they are ahead? The game costs less over there as well! What we are trying to duplicate here is trying to increase the amount these kids play, and what that will do is increase the amount of technically competent footballers, and that is why Japan is way ahead of us.

"Once we get that right, and we have done so in some communities where it is really paying dividends, that is when I think Australia’s football will become better if we can understand, as a culture, that we really need our kids playing more."

Kano is working with local communities to increase the number of children playing football at a formative age. (KANO Australia Facebook)

Popal echoed Byer's words on youth development, repeating, "It is a marathon, not a sprint." He wants clubs and parents to understand this idea and act accordingly to set up systems and develop their children instead of looking for what seem to be convenient quick fixes.

"There are going to be mistakes; coaches will come and go. But the point is long-term, it works, but we are talking seven to ten years. Communities cannot have a successful development program in a couple of years; it takes time, so they’ve got to understand that time factor."

"The second thing to understand is that between the ages of five and seven is a crucial age for engaging parents and educating them because if you get them at that age, the kid will be technically better for it, and the parents are very well-informed, and then you don’t have to deal with the mess that comes later on when there are misunderstandings."

Having operated for 12 years, Ehsan Popal is starting to see the fruits of his ever-growing team's labour make an impact in senior football, with players once in his program breaking into their respective first teams while also taking satisfaction from seeing previously underperforming programs improve from partnering with Kano.

In the next 12 years, Popal wants Australia to become known as a technical football nation with strong dribblers and confident one-on-one players. He and Kano will continue to provide their coaching. But he admits the biggest difference-makers are the parents, who can help kids take their game to the next level by encouraging them to practice at home while guiding them on what to focus on rather than simply deferring that work to the closest costly big-name academy.

Click here to read more of FPF's coverage of grassroots projects around Australia, or here to read more about Australian football's links to the world game overseas!


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