Italian youth soccer “calcio” culture

SoccerAmerica published a great article on one Bay Area family’s experiences in the Italian youth soccer scene. It’s written by Chris Pepe who’s son plays on the U12 Juventus DA team here in the Bay Area. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Chris!

Click here for the full article. For brevity, I took the liberty of posting only the key parts of Chris’ article below. I recognize immediately what Chris describes from my time growing up in Europe. The same observations apply to Latin America.

The difference between a soccer culture that is deeply embedded within society and one that is just another scheduled sports activity shows itself on the fields of play.

If you’re interested in my views on this please click here, here, and here for additional articles.

Ok, here are Chris’ observations in Italy:

“At some point in the evolution of soccer in the USA, it seems we all became convinced that our children could or even would play professionally … statistics be damned! A truly American belief, born out of our eternal optimism and sometimes nauseating can-do spirit.

Despite the lack of a broad-based structure to scout and identify young talent, we still believe our kid will be the one. Irrespective of the millions of kids playing soccer for countless hours every day, we think the two hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday is enough.

Despite the desire buried deep inside the impoverished kid that needs to play to find a better life, we are convinced it can be done. It’s a matter of expectations, and if there is one area where the USA over-indexes against its soccer-rich counterparts, it’s in confidence and its closest offsprings: expectations.

In Italy, instead, it is generally accepted at an early age that your kid won’t play for Inter or AC Milan. The best talent is selected early on, in some ways lowering the level of expectations that your son will become a professional player, and easing your desired outcome for this weekend’s game.

Nationwide rankings are not discussed or, to the best of my knowledge, even kept at the youth level here. The game is not played to bolster coaches’ ratings or build association points or prestige.

The Italian youth soccer game forms part of an intricate social structure that contains layers of amateur teams and professional associations that neatly ladder up to the professional Serie A.

Every town and village has its own top-flight squad, and a structure below that ladders its way up. Whether the top team plays in Serie A, B or C, or somewhere below, matters little other than the fact that it enables every player in every town to continue to play for as long as they may choose.

In our adopted town in Italy, knowing that the ‘best’ and most connected kids were playing for our local Serie B youth team, Vicenza Calcio, weekends have become much more relaxing. Oh sure, you do get to play against them, if only to see how the game is properly played.

And, yes, exposure is possible even at the lowest levels and in the smallest town, but is identified early on freeing the mind and the soul to play for the love of the game and with no particular professional ends in mind.

My son’s new school in Italy is attached to one of the many local churches, Chiesa del Carmine. As tourists, we had often marveled at the number of churches in Italy, rarely seeing the hidden courtyard sheltering a small calcetto court behind. Think small-sided 5v5 games on a basketball-style court. [Side note from this blogger: click here for a similar neighborhood court I came across wandering around downtown Barcelona recently.]

The Carmine courtyard has a small-sized soccer field, and numerous well-spaced trees that act as goalposts for any number of after school pick-up games. As the courtyard turns into a public park in the afternoons, kids from the neighborhood rush to pick teams, wearing last years Juve or Milan shirt bought at the market for 10 euro.

They Ro Sham Bo to determine teams, and proceed to play with reckless abandon. There is no structure or hired coach, there are no fees or scheduled breaks. Kids only stop play to cheer the slickest new move, or to get pointers on how to execute the latest trick. Older kids look out for younger kids, and younger kids test their toughness against older kids.

No meals will be missed, but kids play until darkness descends and their hearts are full of the beautiful game. It is here among friends where new moves are tried, individual skills are honed, and confidence is built.

In the USA, I would drop off my son at assigned times to run and kick and learn soccer’s structured basic skill-set. I would then rush to bring my daughter to her practice at the same time; do a bit of shopping; or maybe sneak in a run.

There was never an after school pick-up game or other opportunity to play. I could often convince my friend Marvin, a Salvadoran-American, to bring his three sons and meet at the local park. But even then, we never had enough players for a spirited match, and would make up games or run through drills.

I have often believed that U.S. youth soccer is dominated by ‘organized’ babysitting, as opposed to spontaneous play, and this notion has been reaffirmed while living in a country that has soccer as part of its very DNA.

While soccer remains perched on the cusp of a real mainstream following in the USA, we continue to excel at ‘soccer-by-appointment,’ rather than evolving into a sport driven by passion. Kids in Italy, while not quite filling every piazza with neighborhood match-ups, still play calcio more for the fun of it than for the appointed necessity of it all.

On my son’s Italian team (San Lazzaro), sponsored by the local pizza joint (Pizzeria Albera), there is no one outstanding athlete that can out-run the pack, and score off a long ball sent from the defense. It helps of course that, at this age (until age 13), kids play 9-a-side games on small-ish fields, with even smaller goals. There are three periods of 20 minutes a-piece, and little substituting.

At the start of each game, kids line up and walk to the center circle, while parents applaud both sides in an effort to set a standard for fair play. Once play begins, the focus is on playing the game properly and as one cohesive unit, one team. When the ball does cross the end-line, the keeper, no matter his skill level, must always play the ball from the back to his expectant defenders.

The team will then work the ball up through the midfield, and across the halfway line. Sure, this leads to countless mistakes and numerous unaccounted-for goals; irrespective, the emphasis remains the same, and the game must still be initiated from the back. It’s a rare match when the keeper punts the ball more than twice, and even more rare for a long ball to be played.

Winning remains an objective, however it’s the appearance of play, the ‘bella figura,’ that matters most. Losing well and looking good are acceptable; losing bad and looking bad are not.

Calcio and life are inextricably intertwined in so many ways here. Here you learn from a very young age that soccer is much more than a game. It’s a way of life.”

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

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