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Soccer fans cheer 11-a-side succour

School footballers were celebrating victory this week after the Football Association decided not to ban 11-a-side games for under 10-year olds.

The FA full council voted against the recommendations of its instructional committee, which had called for the lower age limit on 11- a-side competitive matches to be raised from nine to ten from next season, and to 11 from 1996-7.

The plans had sparked protests from parents and children who demonstrated outside FA headquarters in Lancaster Gate in London last month and handed a 5,000- name petition to England manager Terry Venables.

"It's great news," said Peter Cordwell, co-ordinator of the "Save our Soccer" campaign, and organiser of the Bexley and District junior league. He believes that if the FA had approved the ban, many youngsters would have been lost to the game.

"Football is an 11-a-side game and kids want to play the real thing - it's tradition. Almost all junior teams play small-sided games in training but come Sunday they want to play 11-a-side. Terry Venables was very sympathetic and I am sure he put a word in for us. " Critics of the present system say that using full-sized pitches at an early age can cause injuries through overplaying and produces players with faults symptomatic of the British game - physically strong but lacking in finesse.

Instead, the FA is keen to promote more five, six and seven-a-side competitions - which allow players more touches of the ball and is not so physically exhausting - under its Mini Soccer scheme which is sponsored by Coca-Cola.

Alan Clarke, secretary of the London Youth FA, representing 900 teams and 15,000 players, said: "It is not the case that the best lads play up to 200 games a season. The best players are snapped up by the senior clubs and sent to centres of excellence.

"The overplay argument really isn't relevant to us - we are talking about ordinary lads who will never be professionals. We only play once a week so that's a maximum of 30 games in a season." The attraction of 11-a-side games, he added, was that children get a chance to identify with their heroes.

In France, Germany and Italy children have to wait until they are 12 before they can play in nationally-affiliated 11-a-side competitions. In Holland, the age is 11.

Malcolm Berry, chief executive of the English Schools FA and a member of the FA Council, said that the FA had made the right decision in referring the issue back to the instructional committee, which advises on educational matters.

"The FA are great believers in, and promoters of, small-sided football, " he said. "It does help to develop players' skills but it is going to take more than a rule change before people accept small-sided soccer. We have got to make pitches and equipment more suitable for young players. When children are playing on huge pitches in bad weather with a strong wind they can hardly kick a goal kick out of the area."

The FA is promising full consultation over possible changes, Malcolm Berry said: "There is going to be a long and sensible debate and I am sure that in the end we will get it right. We want to be positive and develop the game in the right way."

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