In this ground-breaking docu-series, follow Manchester City behind the scenes throughout their Premier League winning, record-breaking ’17-18 season. Get an exclusive look into one of the best global sports clubs, including never-before-seen dressing room footage with legendary coach Pep Guardiola, and delve into the players’ lives off and on the pitch.
I’m sharing here the full article that appeared in The Economist on June 9. A fascinating read.
Wealth, size and interest in football explain almost half of countries’ international performance. The rest can be taught.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, within kicking distance of Uruguay’s national football stadium, 14 seven-year-olds walk onto a bumpy pitch. They are cheered by their parents, who are also the coaches, kit-washers and caterers.
The match is one of hundreds played every weekend as part of Baby Football, a national scheme for children aged four to 13. Among the graduates are Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, two of the world’s best strikers.
Messrs Suárez and Cavani are Uruguay’s spearheads at the World Cup, which kicks off in Russia on June 14th. Bookmakers reckon La Celeste are ninth-favourites to win, for what would be the third time. Only Brazil, Germany and Italy have won more, even though Uruguay’s population of 3.4m is less than Berlin’s.
Though it is no longer the giant that it was in the early 20th century, Uruguay still punches well above its weight. Messrs Suárez and Cavani reached the semi-finals in 2010 and secured a record 15th South American championship in 2011. Their faces adorn Montevideo’s football museum, along with a century’s worth of tattered shirts and gleaming trophies.
If tiny Uruguay can be so successful, why not much larger or richer countries? That question appears to torment Xi Jinping, China’s president, who wants his country to become a football superpower by 2050. His plan includes 20,000 new training centres, to go with the world’s biggest academy in Guangzhou, which cost $185m.
The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have spent billions of dollars buying top European clubs, hoping to learn from them. Saudi Arabia is paying to send the Spanish league nine players. A former amateur footballer named Viktor Orban, who is now Hungary’s autocratic prime minister, has splurged on stadiums that are rarely filled.
So far these countries have little to show for their spending. China failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup, and even lost 1-0 to Syria—a humiliation that provoked street protests.
Footballer, meet model
The Economist has built a statistical model to identify what makes a country good at football. Our aim is not to predict the winner in Russia, which can be done best by looking at a team’s recent results or the calibre of its squad. Instead we want to discover the underlying sporting and economic factors that determine a country’s footballing potential—and to work out why some countries exceed expectations or improve rapidly. We take the results of all international games since 1990 and see which variables are correlated with the goal difference between teams.
We started with economics. Stefan Szymanski, an economist at the University of Michigan who has built a similar model, has shown that wealthier countries tend to be sportier. Football has plenty of rags-to-riches stars, but those who grow up in poor places face the greatest obstacles. In Senegal, coaches have to deworm and feed some players before they can train them; one official reckons only three places in the country have grass pitches. So we included GDP per head in our model.
Then we tried to gauge football’s popularity. In 2006 FIFA, the sport’s governing body, asked national federations to estimate the number of teams and players of any standard. We added population figures, to show the overall participation rate. We supplemented these guesses with more recent data: how often people searched for football on Google between 2004 and 2018, relative to other team sports such as rugby, cricket, American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey. Football got 90% of Africa’s attention compared with 20% in America and just 10% in cricket-loving South Asia. To capture national enthusiasm and spending on sports in general, we also included Olympic medals won per person.
Next we accounted for home advantage, which is worth about 0.6 goals per game, and for strength of opposition. Peru gets extra credit for playing so often against overachievers, for example. Finally, to reduce the distorting effect of hapless minnows like the Cayman Islands and Bhutan, we whittled down our results to the 126 countries that have played at least 150 matches since 1990.
Our model explains 40% of the variance in average goal difference for these teams. But that leaves plenty of outliers. Uruguay was among the biggest, managing nearly a goal per game better than expected. Brazil, Argentina, Portugal and Spain were close behind. West Africa and the Balkans overachieved, too.
Sadly for ambitious autocrats, the data suggest that China and the Middle East have already performed above their low potential. Cricket dominates Google searches in the Gulf states (no doubt largely because South Asian migrant workers love it). Just 2% of Chinese played football in 2006, according to FIFA, compared with 7% of Europeans and South Americans. China and Middle Eastern countries have occasionally managed to qualify for the World Cup, but none has won a game at the tournament since 1998.
The model’s most chastening finding is that much of what determines success is beyond the immediate control of football administrators. Those in Africa cannot make their countries less poor. Those in Asia struggle to drum up interest in the sport. Football’s share of Google searches has been rising in China but falling in Saudi Arabia.
Nonetheless, officials with dreams of winning the World Cup can learn four lessons from our model’s outliers and improvers. First, encourage children to develop creatively. Second, stop talented teenagers from falling through the cracks. Third, make the most of football’s vast global network. And fourth, prepare properly for the tournament itself.
Start with the children. The obvious lesson from Uruguay is to get as many nippers kicking balls as possible, to develop their technical skills. Mr Xi wants the game taught in 50,000 Chinese schools by 2025. China might try something like “Project 119”, a round-the-clock training scheme for youngsters, which helped to lift China to the top of the medal table at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The trouble is that relentless drilling “loses the rough edges that make geniuses”, says Jonathan Wilson, editor of the Blizzard, a journal covering the game around the world. East German players trained much harder than those in West Germany, but only qualified for a major tournament once.
The trick is not just to get lots of children playing, but also to let them develop creatively. In many countries they do so by teaching themselves. George Weah, now the president of Liberia but once his continent’s deadliest striker, perfected his shooting with a rag ball in a swampy slum. Futsal, a five-a-side game with a small ball requiring nifty technique, honed the skills of great Iberian and Latin American players—from Pelé and Diego Maradona to Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Andrés Iniesta. Zinedine Zidane was one of many French prodigies who learned street football, or ballon sur bitume. In an experiment that asked adult players to predict what would happen next in a video clip, the best performers had spent more time mucking around aged six to ten. Another study found that academy prospects who ended up with contracts had put in more hours of informal practice as children.
Such opportunities are disappearing in rich countries. Matt Crocker, the head of player development for England’s Football Association (FA), says parents are now reluctant to let children outside for a kickabout. Many social-housing estates have signs banning ball games. Dele Alli, a mercurial England attacker, is unusual for having learned in what he has called “a concrete cage”. The challenge is “to organise the streets into your club”, say Guus Hiddink, who has managed the Netherlands, South Korea, Australia, Russia and Turkey.
Deutschland über alles
The Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB), Germany’s national body, has done so zealously. In the early 2000s it realised that Germany’s burly players were struggling against defter teams. Our model reckons Die Mannschaft, as the national team is known, should surpass everyone else, given Germany’s wealth, vast player pool and lack of competing sports. But between 1990 and 2005 it performed about a third of a goal worse per match than expected.
So the DFB revamped. German clubs have spent about €1bn ($1.2bn) on developing youth academies since 2001, to meet 250 nationwide criteria. Youngsters now have up to twice as much training by the age of 18. Crucially, however, sessions focus on creativity in random environments. One exercise involves a robotic cage that flings balls from various angles for a player to control and pass. The men who won the World Cup in 2014, writes Raphael Honigstein, a German football author, learned through “systematic training to play with the instinct and imagination of those mythical ‘street footballers’ older people in Germany were always fantasising about”. Our model reckons that since 2006 the team has performed almost exactly at the high level expected of it.
England has followed, overhauling its youth programme in 2012. Mr Crocker explains that players are encouraged to take risks and think for themselves. Spanish clubs have long excelled at this, by endlessly practising the rondo: a close-quarters version of piggy-in-the-middle. But the England under-17s that thumped Spain 5-2 in last year’s World Cup final ran rings around their opponents. Mr Crocker says they devised their own tactics, with little managerial help. England’s under-20s won their World Cup, too.
Such self-confidence was lacking in South Korea, Mr Hiddink recalls. When he took over in 2001, the country was already overachieving relative to our model’s low expectations, given its 2% participation rate. But the manager believed that his charges had been held back by a fear of making mistakes. “Deep down I discovered a lot of creative players,” he says. With some help from lucky refereeing decisions, South Korea reached the semi-finals in 2002—making it the only country outside Europe and South America to get that far since 1930.
The second lesson for ambitious officials is to make sure that gifted teenagers do not fall through the cracks. The DFB realised that many had been overlooked by club scouts, so it set up 360 extra regional centres for those who missed the cut. One of them was André Schürrle, who provided the pass that led to the cup-winning goal in 2014. In South Korea Mr Hiddink noticed that some of the best youngsters played for the army or universities, where they were sometimes missed by professional scouts.
When Russia bid to host this year’s tournament in 2010, Mr Hiddink implored his then-bosses to create a nationwide scouting programme, to no avail. The Russian team has declined since then, failing to win a game at the European Championship in 2016. Russia now has one of the World Cup’s oldest squads. Such short-sightedness has harmed America, too, which failed to qualify for this year’s tournament. Our model reckons it should be one of the strongest countries, even accounting for the popularity of other sports such as baseball and basketball. But few players get serious coaching in the amateur college system, and those who are not drafted to Major League Soccer cannot be promoted from lower divisions.
Centralised schemes are easier to establish in small countries. Every Uruguayan Baby Football team has its results logged in a national database. Iceland, which has qualified despite having only 330,000 people and 100 full-time professionals, has trained over 600 coaches to work with grassroots clubs. Since 2000 it has built 154 miniature pitches with under-soil heating to give every child a chance to play under supervision. Such programmes are unfeasible in Africa. Abdoulaye Sarr, a former Senegal manager, says that the pool of talent is huge but barely tapped. Money that could be spent on scouting is lavished on officials instead. In a conspicuous waste of scarce resources, Senegal is sending 300 of them to Russia.
Belgium poaches elephants
West Africa has, however, taken our third tip by tapping into sport’s global network. Western Europe is at the centre of this network, since it has the richest clubs, where players get the best coaching. Ivory Coast, which failed to qualify this time but is Africa’s biggest overachiever, exported a generation of young stars to Beveren, a Belgian club. Many of them later thrived in England’s Premier League. When Senegal beat France, the reigning champions, in 2002, all but two of its squad members played for French teams.
Senegal could have used its resources even more effectively. Patrick Vieira, who left Dakar for France aged eight, was playing for the former colonial power. He was one of several immigrant Frenchmen who won Les Bleus the World Cup in 1998. His home country had never contacted him. Today Senegal is more astute about recruiting its diaspora, and has picked nine foreign-born players for the tournament. Our model reckons the country has performed about 0.4 goals per game better since 2002 than it did before.
The 21st Club, a football consultancy, notes that among European countries the Balkans export the highest share of players to stronger domestic leagues. Since 1991, when Croatia’s 4m people gained independence, none of its clubs has advanced far in the Champions League, Europe’s leading club competition. Yet Croatian clubs have sold lots of players to Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Milan, and those émigrés carried Croatia to the semi-finals in 1998. These export pipelines can become self-perpetuating, thinks Mr Wilson: “once a team does well at a World Cup, and some of its players do well, everybody wants to buy them.”
Some countries are less adept. In the past 15 years Mexico’s under-17s have outperformed those from Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. But a third of Mexico’s senior squad plays in its domestic league, compared with just two or three players for the others. Dennis te Kloese, the national director, says that the Mexican diaspora boosts viewing figures and revenues for domestic clubs, who can pay high enough wages to keep talented locals in the country, rather than venturing to unfashionable European leagues. This domestic bias helps explain why Mexico is one of the few Latin American countries to perform as well as expected, rather than better.
Exporting players is not the only way to benefit from foreign expertise. Mr Wilson says that much of South America’s footballing education came from Jewish coaches fleeing Europe in the 1930s. Today there is a well-trodden circuit of international gurus like Mr Hiddink, who was among the first of a dozen former Real Madrid bosses to have worked in Asia. Yet Mr Szymanski of the University of Michigan has shown that few managers can do much to improve mediocre teams. He also finds that teams outside Europe and South America are no closer to catching up than they were 20 years ago. The data suggest that South Korea has fared slightly worse since 2002 than it did before.
Mr Szymanski believes these countries are experiencing a kind of footballing “middle-income trap”, in which developing economies quickly copy technologies from rich ones but fail to implement structural reforms. A clever manager might bring new tactical fads but cannot produce a generation of creative youngsters. China is said to be paying Marcello Lippi, who led Italy to victory in 2006, $28m a year. Unless he is supported by youth coaches and scouts who reward imaginative play, and a generation of youngsters who love the game, the money will be wasted.
Our final lesson is for the World Cup itself: prepare properly. For starters, make sure you can afford it. In 2014 Ghana brought in $3m of unpaid bonuses by courier to avert a players’ strike, while Nigeria’s squad boycotted a training session over wages. Fabio Capello, Russia’s former boss, went without his $11m salary for months after the rouble collapsed. Navigating dressing-room politics is trickier. Winning players from Spain and Germany have described the importance of breaking down club-based cliques and dropping stars who do not fit the team’s tactics.
The hardest decisions fall to the players. England’s results from the penalty spot have been woeful, losing six of seven shoot-outs in tournaments. Video analysis shows that players who rush tend to miss penalties; the English are particularly hasty. So the under-17s, who won a shoot-out in their World Cup, have worked on slowing down and practising a range of premeditated shots.
The bane and the delight of the World Cup is that decades of planning depend on such fine margins. A country could plan meticulously and still be thwarted by an unlucky bounce of the ball or a bad decision by the referee. “If something goes wrong, everybody wants to rip up the book,” says Mr Wilson. For spectators, however, this randomness offers a glimmer of hope. Teams from Asia, Africa and North America remain the underdogs, but ought to have had more fairytale runs like South Korea’s in 2002. The 21st Club reckons there is a one-in-four chance a first-time champion will emerge this year. For one intoxicating month, fans around the world will forget the years of hurt and believe that their history books, like those in Montevideo’s museum, could be about to add a glorious new chapter.
This comes as no surprise to many of you that already ‘get this’ intuitively from having played and watched this beautiful game your entire life. And you’ll also understand why I used the above image for this blog post.
Without an appreciation of and commitment to the artistry of soccer we won’t be able to credibly compete at the international level and the growth of soccer here will stall.
Some day the majority of coaches, players, and parents in our country will hold this truth to be self-evident. We still have some way to go, unfortunately, but we have to keep chipping away at this folks. Keep the faith!
The peer-reviewed study, conducted by researchers from Australia and the U.S. in collaboration with elite soccer academies in Brazil, was published last week in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.
This new study used analytic techniques developed in evolutionary biology to determine the impact of a player’s skill, athletic ability, and balance on their success during a game.
The researchers found it was their skill — not speed, strength, or fitness — that was the most important factor.
“Higher skill allows players to have a greater impact on the game”, Professor Wilson said.
“Accurate passing and greater ball control are more important for success than high speed, strength and fitness.
“It may be obvious to soccer fans and coaches that players like Lionel Messi and Neymar are the best due to their skill.
“However, 90 per cent of research on soccer players is based on how to improve their speed, strength, and agility — not their skill.”
Professor Wilson is collaborating with elite soccer academies in Brazil, where he is testing new protocols for skill development in junior players.
“Our research shows that skill is fundamental to player success in soccer,” he said.
“Skill is complex and multidimensional — and we need to measure all aspects of it — with the next step to work out how to improve these aspects in developing players.
“Brazilian football academies understand the importance of developing skill in young players, which gives us a great opportunity to test our ideas and find new ways to improve youth training.
“Professor Wilson hopes to bring his knowledge back to Australia to improve the nation’s international standing and World Cup potential.
“Australia will only become a successful footballing nation if we innovate rather than replicate,” he said.
“There are kids with an incredible amount of skill who aren’t being selected for teams and training programs because they can’t run as fast at nine, 10, or 11 years old.
“These kids need to be given a chance and the science of skill is on their side.”
Albert Puig wrote the following open letter in English and Spanish on Oct 12, 2017, following the elimination of our MNT from the World Cup:
One year after my arrival to the United States, with your permission, I intend to reflect on the situation of the U.S. Soccer.
I want to do it without criticism. Just stating the facts, since the will of the development of soccer in the United States, it is, and so it must be, of the Americans themselves.
I think it may be interesting to both the American public and to the rest of the world, to understand the situation, of course, always in my humble opinion.
The elimination of the senior national team for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, is no more than a consequence of the current soccer development system in the country.
A development system unable to define which is the objective. In the rest of the world, soccer becomes a factor of maximum social roots. Accordingly, their level is compared with other countries, and in that competition is where the challenge is created.
In the United States, the structure is very different. Without social roots at the base, its objective is transformed from collective to individual.
The formation of the player has a clear objective: get a scholarship for American universities.
Thus, we move from a collective challenge of a society, to a challenge more alien to it: the individual success in a team sport.
The development player becomes a parental investment; not so much, as in the rest of the world, because of the possibility of an economic and social future, but because investing a monetary amount now and multiplying by ‘x’ later, may become money saved for the university.
This leads to an exaggerated individualization of the vision of the parents on the development of the player. Every game has to be the result of my economic investment this week, therefore, it has to be the best, because the individual vision goes over the collective one. I invest, so I would like to see immediate results.
Sports structures are at the service of this idea. Plenty of competitive rules that only seek to follow the marked path: to arrive at the university.
Here a parenthesis. The American university is part of a big business economic development of the country, and acts as the real connector from youth to maturity within both social and jobs industry point if view. This is different in other countries.
In that individual objective, the methodology of the coaches follow the path. Practices where the focus are on the individual technical and physical development of the player, without understanding that soccer is a language, where the most important thing is to understand that language, understand it and speak it.
Two styles very defined. The combinative, usually robotic and without any hint of motivation by the creativity; and the physical, the body size and a direct game with speed to the back of the defenses.
The final goal, that could well be as in other countries, the arrival to the professional soccer, here the MLS, it is a way without any kind of future work.
Business takes over sport. Low salaries, not attractive to the American player, pure marketing, and tickets with the price of European soccer.
Result? Maximum economic benefits for the owners of the clubs, very low level of competitive quality. And those players are the basis of the national team.
Cases like Pulisic, which I personally know well because I was Director of the academy for FCB, are exceptions; in this case it was successful thanks to the strong will of the family, and the risk they took going for the adventure of professional soccer in Europe; as I said, in this case was successful, but unfortunately many more did not achieve their dream.
And what is the way forward? Only the social will of desire. And in these moments, and in the past, the United States, does not want to, as a collective, be a reference for the world of soccer.
US really has all the ingredients; large population, very smart players, with good physical anatomy for the sport, creative, collective….. only one thing is missing….to want, and to know, how to do it well.
Un año después de mi llegada a Estados Unidos , con vuestro permiso, me dispongo a reflexionar sobre la situación del futbol estadounidense, aquí llamado soccer. Quiero hacerlo sin critica. Solo exponiendo los hechos, ya que la voluntad del desarrollo del futbol en Estados Unidos, es , y asi debe ser, de los propios americanos.
Creo interesante para que tanto el publico americano , como el del resto del mundo, entiendan la situación, evidentemente, siempre desde mi humilde opinión.
La eliminación de la selección absoluta del mundial 2018 de Rusia, no es mas que una consecuencia del desarrollo actual del futbol de formación del país. Una formación donde no esta definido cual es el objetivo que persigue, o si. En el resto del mundo ,el futbol, pasa a ser un factor de máximo arraigo social . En consecuencia , su valor es comparado con otros países, y en esa competición esta el objetivo de superación.
En Estados Unidos, la estructura es bien distinta. Sin arraigo social en la base, su objetivo se transforma de colectivo a individual. La formación del jugador tiene un objetivo claro. Conseguir una beca económica para las caras universidades americanas. Asi pues, pasamos de un reto colectivo de sociedad, a un reto mas ajeno a ella. El éxito individual en un deporte colectivo.
El jugador de formación se convierte en una inversión paterna, ya no tanto, como en el resto de países del mundo por un porvenir económico y social de futuro, sino por invertir una cantidad monetaria para multiplicar por x después, en el ahorro de la tasa universitaria.
Eso conlleva a una individualización exagerada de la visión de los padres sobre el desarrollo del jugador. Cada partido tiene que ser la consecuencia de mi inversión económica de esta semana, por ello, tiene que ser el mejor , ya que la vision individual prima sobre el colectivo. Invierto, pues quiero ver resultados inmediatos.
Las estructuras deportivas están al servicio de esta idea. Infinidad de reglas competitivas que solo buscan seguir el camino marcado. Llegar a la universidad. Aquí un paréntesis. La universidad americana es parte de un gran negocio económico de país, y actua como eje real vertebrador del paso de juventud a la madurez dentro del ámbito laboral y social. Diferente en otros países.
En ese individual objetivo, la metodología de los entrenadores siguen la estela. Practicas donde se busca el desarrollo individua técnico y físico del jugador, sin entender que el futbol es un lenguaje , donde lo mas importante es entenderlo , comprenderlo y hablarlo.
Dos estilos muy marcados. El combinativo, mas bien robotizado y sin ningún atisbo de motivación por la creatividad. Y el fisico, imperando la talla corporal y un juego directo con velocidad a la espalda de los defensas.
El objetivo final, que podría bien ser como en otros países, la llegada al futbol profesional, aquí la MLS, es un camino sin ningún tipo de futuro laboral. Impera la ley del negocio. Bajos salarios, no atractivos para el jugador americano, marqueting en estado puro , y entradas a precio de futbol europeo.
Resultado? Máximos beneficios económicos del los propietarios del los clubes, nivel muy bajo de calidad competitiva. Sus jugadores son la base de la selección americana.
Casos como Pulisic, que bien conozco personalmente por mi antigua dirección de la academia del FCB, son excepciones, mas por voluntad firme de la familia, y del riesgo de la aventura del mundo profesional europeo, que en este caso si ha tenido exito, pero por desgracia muchos mas no consiguieron su sueño.
Y cual es el camino? Solo la voluntad social de querer. Y en estos momentos, y en el pasado, Estados Unidos, no quiere como colectivo ser referente el el mundo del futbol. Lo tiene todo. Poblacion, jugadores muy inteligentes, con buena anatomía física para el deporte, creativos, colectivos….. solo fatal eso….querer y saber hacerlo bien.
Last Saturday’s Atletico Madrid vs FC Barcelona game was a perfect example of modern top-level soccer.
It had everything – skills, technique, creativity, excellent off-the-ball movement, great defending and goalkeeping, playing out from the back, spacing, pressing, shooting, passion, pace, team work….the list goes on.
This is how huge the gap is in our country. This is where we need to be if we want to compete internationally.
And to reach this level of soccer sophistication requires a fundamental revamp of how we teach, play, and organize soccer. It starts with our coaching quality, and includes finding a way for our best/better players to avoid college soccer.
I’m including here a 12-minute highlights clip, but it doesn’t do the game justice. I strongly encourage you to find a recording of the full game and watch it with your soccer-playing kids. It’s very entertaining and a great learning opportunity.
This is my first post in many months – I’ve simply been too busy at work and with family. But Tuesday night’s US MNT elimination from the World Cup jolted me into posting again.
I have not felt this angry in a while. This is a national disgrace, an international embarrassment.
Let me be very blunt: what a joke of a team and coaches. USSF lacks leadership that understands this beautiful game deeply enough. The quality of soccer in the MLS is poor and the incentives in that league are not aligned with developing players to compete internationally. And don’t get me started on college soccer.
Time to stop the BS and start with a complete and deep revamp of how we teach, play, and organize the beautiful game here.
We need to hold our coaches more accountable and support only those that truly understand the game and how to teach it. This also means that we as parents and the leaders of our youth clubs educate ourselves about what it means to learn and play futbol properly.
In contrast to pretty much all soccer powerhouses such as Brazil and Germany and Spain, we’re paying our coaches and clubs a lot of money, right? So if we have a pay-to-play model here let’s at least demand a service that can justify these cost.
This applies to all levels of coaching – national, pro, college, and youth. And it applies to US Soccer leadership as well as us parents.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while then you know that this doesn’t come as too big a surprise to me, but I still feel angry about it.
We have inmates running the asylum and it needs to stop.
In contrast, tiny Iceland (pop 335,000) qualified for the World Cup yesterday in first place (!) in its European (!) qualifying group. And remember their recent remarkable European Championship performance?
That’s a country only about one-third the population of the City of San Jose here in NorCal.
Let’s do that again: 335 thousand people with limited resources on an icy island in the Atlantic ocean near Europe perform better than 335 million people living in the wealthiest country in the world with unbelievable facilities and resources and brainpower and a deep and pervasive tradition of sports.
When will there be enough evidence to finally trigger deep changes in how we train and play this beautiful game in our country? Have we finally reached a tipping point?
I’ll leave you with these three clips to reflect on:
#ussoccer #soccer #futbol #usmnt #mls #ussf
The launch of U.S. Soccer’s Girls’ Development Academy (GDA) this August is probably the single most discussed topic in girls’ soccer currently.
The GDA is supposed to mirror the successful Boys’ Development Academy, which was launched in 2007, and is expected to become the new home for our elite female soccer players, effectively replacing the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), which will now become a league for the second tier teams.
Many clubs, coaches, and parents are wondering why there’s a need for a GDA when ECNL has been providing a regional and national league system for our best girls since 2009.
What makes this more contentious is the ‘no high school soccer’ rule for girls in the GDA. This rule states that GDA players cannot play high school soccer while also training and playing with the GDA primarily because of overuse health concerns and poor quality of coaching. They can, however, opt to take a three-month break from the GDA to play high school soccer and then return once the high school soccer season is over.
To help explain the reasons for the GDA, April Heinrichs, U.S. Soccer’s Women’s Technical Director, gave an interview to SoccerAmerica last November. I strongly encourage you to read it. April’s comments resonate strongly with me.
First, we haven’t emphasized technical skills enough in our country. Raw athleticism, speed, size, and aggression have dominated player selection for too long. This works well especially at younger ages if ‘winning’ and ‘rankings’ are important.
For example, U12 or U14 girls that are physically more mature and have the basics down will typically beat girls that are technically more proficient but are physically less developed at the same age. The club’s and coach’s win-percentage and team ranking will be higher, which in turn attracts more paying families.
But those same ‘winning’ girls will struggle eventually as their technically superior smaller peers mature physically too over time. And many of those ‘winning’ physically mature U12 or U14 girls overshoot as they fully mature into young women. I have seen many ‘winning’ 12, 13, and 14 year old girls turn into slow and ineffective players at age 15 and 16.
At the international level a focus on physical attributes won’t be sufficient going forward given the big improvements in the development of female soccer players in countries like Japan, France, Spain, and England.
For societal reasons and because of the deeply embedded male soccer culture in leading soccer nations, female players only recently started playing soccer in larger numbers there. And those countries are now bringing their deep expertise in player development from the men’s side to their female players.
This is very apparent when watching the most recent U17 and U20 Women’s World Cups. Japan and France in particular played the most sophisticated and complete soccer, and the gap between them and us in those age groups was significant.
“When people say the gap is closing, I would say the gap has closed and we’re falling behind in these areas.” – April Heinrichs in NYT interview, June 2015
Going forward, the ideal female player combines soccer-specific athletic attributes with excellent technical skills and superior soccer IQ. And developing these kinds of players starts when they are very young and needs to continue throughout their youth soccer years.
This will also increase the quality of play domestically and the entertainment value, which in turn should lead to a larger viewership and, over time, more financial resources for women’s soccer.
So with this background in mind, here’s how April described the key differences for each of the girls’ soccer models:
GDA = Primarily Player Development – no financial incentives, just longer-term player development owned and organized by our national soccer federation. Strong centralized control over all aspects, including coaching standards, curriculum, training and game schedule.
ECNL = Primarily Business – a league for our pay-to-play clubs to compete against each other. Need to ‘win’ to keep and attract paying parents with talented girls. Clubs and coaches retain, for all practical intents and purposes, full independence.
High School Soccer = Primarily Social – girls enjoy playing with school friends for their school and get local peer group recognition. Focus is on ‘winning’ with the available pool of players at the school, not player development. Risk of injury is high.
I tried to capture the differences between three models at the national level in the following chart:
I support the introduction of the GDA because it promises to be the best *player development* environment for our elite girls, assuming the coaching quality and player development curriculum is truly world-class. And there will still be the ECNL for girls that either don’t make it into the GDA or prefer to play on ECNL teams.
There will be some regional differences initially – for example, here in NorCal of the big girls’ clubs only De Anza Force has committed to the GDA. Other clubs like Mustang and San Juan have decided to stay with ECNL for now, but that is likely to change if their best girls start to try out at GDA clubs once the dust has settled. In other regions, such as SoCal, ~80% of the top clubs have committed to the GDA as of February 2017.
So the chart for NorCal looks something like this:
In NorCal the best players and coaches will initially still be in the ECNL simply because all of the ECNL clubs and their players aren’t expected to switch to the GDA. However, as the GDA becomes established nationwide and much of the college recruiting and national team scouting aligns with that, more top female players in NorCal will switch to GDA clubs, which will force the ECNL clubs to apply for GDA membership too.
There are probably going to be more changes as we get closer to the summer and there are probably going to be some teething problems, but odds are high that the GDA will be successful. U.S. Soccer will put its full weight behind it. And the GDA will serve our most elite girls well because the focus promises to be primarily on ‘development’ not ‘winning’.
You are probably aware of ongoing discussions regarding head injuries in soccer (it’s much much worse for (American) football, of course, but it’s an issue for soccer too).
Full-blown concussions typically take center-stage, but medical professionals are now also worried about the many smaller sub-concussive blows to the head.
And there is increasing evidence that even just rapid head movements can cause long-term damage.
In response, U.S. Soccer recently introduced a powerful educational concussion video and the no-heading rule for players up to and including twelve years of age.
This caused some frustration, including concerns about our youngsters not being able to head the ball well when they are older.
Some also felt that this was an overreaction and that heading the ball safely (with the front of the head instead of the top or sides) can be taught from a young age.
The risks associated with heading balls is not yet properly understood. Scientists and medical professionals are working to understand this much better, but it will take some time.
In the meantime, I would like to share the experiences of a family friend with you.
Chris Nicholl was a professional soccer player and manager in the English Premier League. He played as a central defender for Aston Villa (1972–1977) (210 league appearances) and then Southampton (1977-1983) (228 league appearances).
Chris also played internationally for Northern Ireland (51 caps). After he retired from his playing career, Chris managed Southampton amongst other clubs.
I’ve added a vintage clip at the end of this article showing Chris’ most famous goal, scored during the League Cup Final against Everton.
But arguably his most memorable feat was scoring all four goals in a 2:2 draw between Aston Villa and Leicester City. 😁
Chris was interviewed by the Daily Mail a couple of weeks ago and I’m pasting a key passage below. Click here for the full article.
“I know I’m brain damaged from heading footballs. I used to head 100 balls almost every day. When I was at Aston Villa I would watch all my team-mates going home in their cars and I would still be there on the training pitch with Ray Grayden who used to send them long. It’s definitely affected my memory. The balls were a lot heavier then.” Nicholl points to his nose which is unnaturally curved and crooked. “Maybe you can tell, I used to head more with my nose,” he adds. “It’s not recommended.”
To be clear, Chris’ example doesn’t prove that heading the ball causes brain damage nor how many headers per day/week/month are safe. His memory loss might simply be age related (he is 70).
However, the medical research community in England and now also the English FA is looking into pre-mature deaths and behavioral changes of former players.
Early evidence is showing that some died of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the same condition as American football players.
And three members of England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, believed to be caused by heading.
According to one health advocate in England, 75% to 80% of the players that contact her are centre-halves and centre-forwards.
“Obviously not all of them are, but the vast majority are. Although any player on the pitch can head the ball, centre halves and strikers head the ball more, especially in those days.”
Researchers at the University of Stirling, UK, found heading the ball just 20 times could make “small but significant changes in brain function” for the next 24 hours, when memory performance was reduced between 41 and 67 per cent.
I hope this serves as a cautionary tale.
Unfortunately, as a referee I still see too many coaches who ignore or down-play players’ head injuries during games and practices.
Let’s err on the side of caution for our youngsters, folks. The brain is precious and damage to it often doesn’t become apparent until later in life.
That damage is irreversible and fundamentally changes who you are as a person well before your pre-mature death.
These Football Times published a must-read article a couple of weeks ago on the big gap in coaching quality here compared to countries like Spain.
It describes one US coach’s experience with three Spanish guest coaches during a summer camp on the East Coast and then his three years of learning about soccer in Spain.
Here are key sections from that article (edited slightly for brevity and clarity):
The three Spanish coaches each taught me more about football than I had previously learned in my 15 year playing career through a variety of different settings including travel teams, premier clubs, summer camps, high school soccer, college soccer and ultimately men’s league.
My coaching career, which included US Soccer national courses, club and collegiate experience, and working summer camps, had been as educationally disappointing as my time as a player.
Between playing and coaching, I had been a part of the US Soccer Federation for 16 years, yet what had I really learned?
In the two weeks I had been working with the three football wise men, I discovered football had a game cycle, it had four phases, each technical ability had a specific tactical intention, it could be simplified in 2v1s and 3v2s, training finishing didn’t mean you’d score goals, defending was more than your stance.
They were showing me through their actions that coaches facilitate learning not with their instructions, but their well-crafted sessions.
Coaches don’t teach creativity but nurture it.
I witnessed how they played chess with their players whilst empowering them to be more than pawns. They demonstrated that coaches are in the spotlight for the losses and in the shadows for the wins. This was merely the tip of the iceberg and I wanted more.
These three Spanish coaches did something US Soccer never had: they inspired me.
At that point, I came to the conclusion that I knew nothing about football. US Soccer had failed me. I had dedicated the majority of my life to it and it had let me down.
Throughout the years, on countless teams with a myriad of experiences and numerous coaches, I was betrayed with a lack information, inspiration and motivation.
Footballistic unfulfillment fed my yearning to learn everything there was to know about my childhood passion, and the only place to achieve this was 6,000 kilometres away.
So I went to Spain three years ago to study football and I finally understand it.
There is an exorbitant amount of mental and physical elements that concern a player’s development over the course of a year, and more so, their integral career. To assign an unqualified and untrained individual to be responsible for a team of young football players would be detrimental to the sport and the integrity of the children.
In order to train any team at any age, the Spanish Football Federation requires coaches to have completed at least the UEFA B license (465 hours over at least nine months of theoretical and practical learning and evaluation). A coach in possession of a US Soccer National ‘D’ license (36-40 hours) is allowed to train any team at any level younger than 15.
How do we expect an individual who’s been prepared for a mere 40 hours to be capable of growing young players into exceptional footballers?
To read the full article click here. It’s worth it!
Thank you, David, for sharing your experiences. It helps push us along here!
GoalNation published an interview with soccer legend Paul Breitner about youth player development in our country. Below is an excerpt with some edits for brevity, and please note that Paul’s command of English isn’t perfect.
Considered one of the greatest living footballers, Paul Breitner won the 1974 World Cup with Germany and is one of the few players in the world — like Pele and Zidane – who have scored in two World Cup finals. He won seven German National Championships with Bayern Munich (1972, 1973, 1974, 1980, 1981) and two with Real Madrid (1975, 1976) in Spain.
Q: If you were a player who had been developed in America, would you have gone on to be a professional player who scored in two World Cup finals?
Paul Breitner: Never.
Q: So you don’t believe you would have grown into the player you became if you had been developed in our current youth soccer world?
Paul Breitner: No, I would have developed to become the same as 100 (other) players in the US. You have the same types of players and everyone has to learn the same moves.
Q: What is important for a soccer player to be successful?
Paul Breitner: A soccer player has to do his job feeling free, and not being commanded and demanded. A soccer player needs to have the freedom to create ideas. He has to defend and attack in his own way – with his own intuition.
Q: What do you believe is wrong in American youth soccer?
Paul Breitner: The problem is that Americans think soccer players are athletes. No way – a soccer player is an artist not an athlete. Coaches have to realize that they are working with artists, not robots.
Q: How are youth soccer players developed in Germany?
Paul Breitner: In Germany, every player is guided according to his own possibilities, his own skills and is not treated the same way as the ten or fifteen other guys on his team. Players are encouraged to discover all kinds of freedom, creativity and responsibility. Respect, partnership, fairness; we teach these values from the age of four.
The above image is from the France vs USA game at the U20 Women’s World Cup on Sunday. It shows our team during a goal kick. Every goal kick was like this.
What do you see?
I was watching the game with my 14 year old daughter. We glanced over the first goal kick. During the second goal kick my daughter said that it looks funny how bunched up they are. Twenty adult-sized players in roughly 10% of the field!
And then during the third goal kick it hit us – our national team can’t play out from the back!!!
This stunned us. My daughter’s U15 ECNL team plays out from the back – 90% of the time. It has been part of their player development for years, but it’s rare unfortunately.
[Post-publication update: my daughter watched the Stanford vs Santa Clara Women’s Soccer College game last night at Stanford. Guess what – these teams did the same bunching up on goal kicks as the U20 national team!]
Playing out from the back is fundamental to modern high-quality, possession oriented soccer. It’s been the standard for quality soccer for a decade at least.
I’ve included a great educational video at the very end of this post – it shows playing out from the back all the way down to the U10 level.
And click here for a good article on this topic. To quote a key passage:
“Football is besieged with coaches and players lacking technical ability and tactical awareness to start with the basics before implementing this methodology and the results can be catastrophic.
A team with players lacking the technical ability or composure will require these players to take risks that cannot be overcome if the ball is lost so deep in the defensive third.
Without a midfield comprised of players willing and able to receive the ball under pressure, playing out of the back is a fool’s game.
From a developmental standpoint, teams excelling at playing out of the back are comprised of players whose footballing education focused on technical ability and proficiency at a young age.”
It was obvious to my 14 year old daughter (and even my 10 year old daughter) that the French players had better touch, skill, composure, movement, and soccer IQ than our players.
Yet, this U.S. Soccer press release referred to the game as being “a physical match” and head coach Michelle French commented “what an absolutely incredibly athletic team France is”.
Were we watching the same game? Hopefully Michelle had to say this for the press release and is having very different conversations behind the scenes.
And can it really be true that our most elite players don’t have the technical ability, soccer IQ, and confidence to play possession soccer?
Don’t our elite goalkeepers have the foot skills needed to support teams playing out from the back?
Global soccer powerhouses such as Germany, Spain, England, and France are applying their world-class coaching and deep understanding of the game to a growing number of girls now playing soccer in those countries. France in particular stands out for me at U20 and below – this bodes well for the future.
And there is one country doing an even better job than the Europeans: Japan.
The Japanese U20 team is playing beautiful soccer. They are playing with technical ability, tactical understanding, creativity, teamwork, and discipline far above anyone else. It’s a treat to watch. And this ability exists across all age groups, not just this U20 team.
[By the way, you can watch these games at http://www.foxsoccer2go.com. Live and recorded.]
Girls have traditionally been marginalized in those countries because soccer was a “man’s sport”, like (American) football here in our country. That started to change about a decade ago and will continue to change going forward.
So world-class player development plus a rapidly expanding pool of raw talent = trouble for us unless we improve our own player development.
Might this be one of the reasons why U.S. Soccer is taking control of elite player development with the launch of the U.S. Development Academy for girls this coming summer?
I strongly suspect that U.S. Soccer will relatively quickly extend the USGDA down to U12/U13 (from the initial U14/15) and then eventually U10/11. Developing world-class technical ability – the foundation for everything else – can’t start early enough.
This begs another question: what have our top clubs and coaches been teaching our girls these last ten years?
Mostly how to win games using the most athletic and physically mature girls possible plus a low-risk ‘kick the ball up the field’ approach.
This reminds me of the coach of the U14 ECNL team that beat my daughter’s U14 ECNL team in the semifinals of the most recent Surf Cup.
He kept shouting “get corner kicks” during the second half because his girls were physically superior to our girls (but technically inferior).
They scored two goals from corner kicks and advanced to the final, but we played much better soccer.
Frankly, from my many years watching and officiating ECNL (and EGSL) games across all age groups, it’s primarily about ‘winning’ and rankings and trophies and player recruiting. There are exceptions, of course, but I believe that the overall picture holds true.
The rivalries between ECNL clubs in each geographic sub-region is intense and often politically charged as clubs compete for local talent. It can get nasty at times.
This dynamic is a disgrace for (elite) player development, and a massive disservice to our girls and our country.
What doesn’t help is that the vast majority of parents even of top girls (and boys) only understand the game at a superficial level and have little patience for true longer-term player development.
Parents shop around for winning teams/clubs without looking closely at how the team is winning and what the youngsters are being taught.
And let’s not forget that coaches need to earn a living in our pay-to-play system. Much of their earnings (and the club’s health and growth) depend, unfortunately, on winning games to attract more talent.
So we need to be careful who to blame. This isn’t necessarily the coaches’ fault – they have to put food on the table after all.
Let’s compete, of course, but the elite level in particular has to be about longer-term player development, not simply ‘winning’.
It has to be about risk taking, not risk avoidance. About creativity and artistry and smarts, not primarily athleticism.
Time to do the hard work of true world-class player development, folks!
And teaching our youngsters the technical ability and tactical understanding to confidently play out from the back is integral to that.
“You are very strong technically and tactically. But you are not fit. Mentally, you are weak. You don’t push yourself hard and you are lazy. You aren’t the sort of player who is going to thrive under pressure.
And your character? That is poor. You make excuses and find people to blame. You always have a reason things are not working out, instead of focusing on what you can do to make them work out.
If you keep working at 80%, you won’t get anywhere. You need to stop with the excuses. You need to start treating every training session, every game, as if it were a World Cup final.
You need to be the hardest-working person out there every time. You can’t just sit behind the strikers, feed them through balls and be a one-way player. You need to play box-to-box, defend and do the dirty work.
Soccer needs to be No. 1 in your life – not your boyfriend or your social life or anything else. Soccer. If it’s not, let’s go home right now.
If I call you at 10 p.m. on a Saturday and say, ‘Meet me at the field in a half-hour,’ you turn to your friends and say, ‘Sorry, everybody, I have to go train.’
You have to be ready and willing to train on Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving – that’s the commitment it’s going to take.”
-Carli Lloyd’s new coach after she was cut from the U21 national team
It took Carli a couple of years to work herself back into the national team player pool, and many more years to ultimately end up playing in the 2015 World Cup Final against Japan where she scored a hat-trick, including one of the best goals ever scored in the WWC. Later that same year she became the Fifa World Player of the Year, alongside Messi.
Some of you might be familiar with the Kleiban brothers already. Brian is a coach at LA Galaxy’s youth academy and Gary writes about soccer in our country through their blog 3Four3.
They have a reputation for, shall we say, ‘rocking the boat’ and their most recent post definitely hits hard. You might not agree with everything they say below, but their views are worth reading if you’re interested in the broader debate about coaching quality and player development in our country.
I wanted to re-blog their post, but couldn’t figure out how to do that, probably because we’re using different blogging platforms. So I decided to simply paste their post here.
To be clear, full credit for all of the content below goes to Gary @3Four3.
I suggest you first watch this clip and then continue reading Gary’s comments.
First, I want to applaud both Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock for bringing an important truth about the state of American soccer to the masses. It speaks volumes that these sports generalists call it like it is, while entrenched American soccer media doesn’t.
American soccer media, hence its consumers, coddles our players.
You don’t hear much public criticism for a variety of reasons
1) Incumbent American soccer media has been practically curated by the establishment. An establishment that naturally doesn’t want to be critically examined, particularly not at the foundational level. Hence, it neuters its media. How does it accomplish this? Well, it holds a monopoly over the ecosystem. Anyone who doesn’t align with its foundational narrative, its founding culture, is in danger of losing access.
2) Incumbent culture has a recreational mentality – a property that is the antithesis of the hardcore culture the rest of the world has. The soccer structure we live in has been built of, by, and for a casual soccer demographic. It extends from youth all the way to the pro level being addressed here.
When something is casual, there are no stakes. When there are no stakes, nobody gets too heated over things.
After all, “it’s just a game“. That phrase, right there, is the (convenient) foundation upon which American soccer has been built. It’s no wonder we’re mediocre, anybody with that kind of mentality will not achieve excellence.
Contrast that with the rest of the world, where a portion of people’s very identity and self esteem is hinged on their clubs and national teams.
Now, before you robotically react and think that’s sad, reserve judgement until you understand that clubs and national teams across the world represent people at a social, political, economic, and cultural level. It is their flag.
3) Most soccer-first households (the largest and most critical of demos) in the United States aren’t paying attention to American soccer. Because well, it’s low level, inauthentic, and most importantly has historically discriminated against them – preferring instead to cater to the soft suburban soccer-mom demo.
As a consequence, it’s that soft culture that both dominates the narrative and creates policy when it comes to the American game – it has inculcated that softness into the very fabric of American soccer.
Yes, the soccer-first demographic, like 3four3, does call it like it is (e.g. as Colin put it in the above clip, “Michael Bradley is completely pedestrian”) but that has historically, and to this day, primarily occurred in relative isolation – as anyone from this demographic is not hired and graced with a large media platform. If one is hired, they are systematically neutered.
But there is someone with a heavyweight platform that has dipped his toe in the culture challenge.
Jurgen has criticized the players, and has been trying to send the message of “not good enough”, and lists reasons.
The result of his action and criticism?
The soft soccer-mom media turned on him and (at the behest of its master, MLS) launched a smear campaign against him that continues to date.
- Prior to the World Cup, he stated the US can not win it. In other words, he told the unvarnished truth. He was real.
- He deemed Landon Donovan not a good fit for the 2014 World Cup squad. (Note: Assessment of a player goes beyond his ability on the field, there are other critical factors a coach considers in making selections. This is a team game, after all. It’s not about 1 player.)
- Players should go overseas to challenge themselves. This was an indictment of MLS, and the domestic culture.
- He transmitted disappointment when he saw some of his key pieces coming back to MLS (e.g. Dempsey, Bradley, Altidore).
- He said many moons ago, and continues to say, that our players are naive and “need to be nastier”.
There have been a variety of other incidents where the soccer-mom culture looked at him as “throwing players under the bus”.
They were also pissed when he suggested the media needed to further educate themselves in the game.
See, the culture here is precisely as Cowherd observes. The culture is soft. Even the words and phrases we use are soft.
If you look at what incumbent soccer media’s reactions/responses to Cowherd & Whitlock’s comments were, you a hard-pressed to find support for their observations.
Quite the contrary, most that’s been published whether on established media outlets, or social media commentary, was crafted to undermine these observations and uphold the soccer-mom status quo.
“We need to tell US soccer players, coaches, and fans the truth” – @WhitlockJason
“We’re not catching up with the rest of the world as long as soccer’s a sport for the upper class.” – @WhitlockJason
Alexi Lalas represents the establishment’s (convenient) myths
Jason Whitlock hits the truth, again.
Absolutely. Absolutely that certain cultures are a better fit to becoming great at soccer than others. Those coming from an affluent suburban American culture, in general, just don’t “have it”.
Those coming from a socio-economic strata below affluence, in general, are better suited. There’s a particular mentality and set of values the latter has, and the former does not.
Some of the biggest inhibitors the suburban players face are:
- The “it’s just a game” mentality. The other demo treats it as an arena to “best” others, since from a societal perspective they are looked as ‘lower class’. It’s personal.
- The suburban players are brought up in an environment where ‘following the rules’ of the traditional American industrial complex is sacred, where self expression is only ok within narrow boundaries. In other words, being robot-like automatons vs flavorful full-range humans. Top level “creativity” isn’t being stifled by coaches on the field, their cultural upbringing is doing that job.
- The suburban player derives his self-esteem from things other than how good he is in sport. For instance, getting good grades on some standardized test. They measure themselves on how good they are at following societal norms. They don’t need to be great at soccer.
“The people in our stands, at the MLS games, they’re wondering where their next glass of wine is coming from.” – @WhitlockJason
Alexi has it totally wrong about pretty much everything. And he really goes off the rails at the end of the video when he tries to defend the absurdity of expecting the US to beat Argentina. It’s completely disingenuous, derived from the campaign to fire Jurgen Klinsmann, and frankly condescending to all US Soccer fans.
“And I saw the 3 American [analysts] pick us to win [vs Argentina], I was like … ‘nah man, don’t lie to us’” – @WhitlockJason
When an admitted soccer layman like Jason Whitlock can sniff out the bull shit, you know we have a serious problem.
Have you ever seen a professional sports team celebrate an opponent during a major competition? This speaks volumes about Falcao’s status in the world of soccer, and futsal in particular.
Falcao retired today at age 39. He brought immeasurable joy to futbol and inspired a generation of players, including Neymar, through his ginga. He lifted futsal to new heights and will be forever remembered alongside greats such as Pele, Cruyff, Maradona, Ronaldinho, and Messi. Thank you for the magic, Falcao!
And respect to the Iranian players for this kind of sportsmanship!
Here’s a 40-second clip showing the celebration immediately after the Quarterfinal and then take a look at the FIFA clip on Falcao.
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.
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.”
You might have read this blog post about the many changes in our Bay Area youth soccer landscape and also one with two recorded calls from two US youth soccer clubs discussing their experiences affiliating with European pro teams.
This post is a guest post written by Andrew Hogg, a Bay Area soccer dad, with his perspectives on the value of affiliations of our youth soccer clubs with European pro clubs.
The insights and views in this post are Andrew’s only, and he takes a strong position on this issue that won’t agree with some of you, but I hope that his views help to at least inform the debate about the value of these affiliations.
Please also refer to the comments section below for additional/opposing perspectives.
Over the last few years an increasing number of youth soccer clubs have ‘affiliated’ themselves with European pro soccer clubs. Those clubs include West Ham, Tottenham, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Bayern Munich.
The big question for parents and youngsters should be what the benefits will be on the field and how will the youngster improve as a player. Ask this question of many US youth clubs who have been affiliates for a few years and they typically only speak in generalities and typically point to overall ‘club growth’ as a benefit.
So let’s examine some of the promises made by our local youth clubs and their affiliated European clubs:
- Access to their European youth development curriculum
- An ID program or player development camps
- Monthly calls with pro club coaches
- One or two visits a year from pro club coaches
- ‘Select teams’ formed from multiple affiliated US youth clubs to travel to tournaments in Europe
- The possibility of select youngsters being able to train with the European clubs’ home youth academy
In return for these benefits, the US affiliate youth club pays an up-front fee, some annual fee, and requires their players to buy (typically once a year) and wear the Euro clubs’ uniforms.
But are these affiliations actually delivering an improved soccer experience to the youngsters at our youth clubs? Or are they just a way for those European clubs to get US parents to pay for the privilege of wearing Euro clubs’ jerseys and propagating their brand?
Is the main reason for our US youth clubs to affiliate with a Euro club simply a smart marketing strategy to grow their clubs, generating more revenue, but not necessarily better soccer?
Keep in mind that youth soccer is a business here in our country and youth clubs in our Bay Area are competing for players and resources, including money, fields, and coaches. Click here for a recent article on this topic. And here’s another one on pay-to-play.
Let’s take a look at each of the promised and implied benefits:
Let’s start with asking what a curriculum even is.
Is there a “system”? Does that system include number of days of training, training focus (technical, tactical, physical etc.) by age, a step-by-step progression model a-la Common Core, practice methodologies, workout drills, discipline models by age, a training ethos (# positions per player by age, playing time models by age, etc.).
Or, to be blunt about it, is the ‘curriculum’ just a bunch of drills that any coach or player or parent could just pull from the Internet?
When you’re promised a curriculum, ask your club to explain what that means, what aspects of training it will cover, in detail. And ask to see the curriculum. Many times the answer will be vague and no actual Euro club curriculum will be forthcoming.
ID Programs and Camps
Usually for even more money, your player can attend an ID Program. This is usually an additional practice, run by your club’s normal coaches, using the Euro club “curriculum”, and ostensibly used to “ID” players who might get “promoted” to the next ID Program (costing more money) and ultimately invited to play on a travel team in a tourney in Europe or on a “tour” to the affiliate club.
Often you are just paying for an extra practice with the club’s normal coaches using their standard curriculum. The camps are much of the same, offered to those in the ID Program, and probably more driven by the revenue they can bring the club than any real desire or ability to deliver superior training to your player.
Monthly Calls with Euro Club Coaches
What actionable items are produced from these monthly calls that have a direct effect on the field for your youngster? Or are these calls just to make the affiliate coaches and/or parent board members feel good?
Are European 2nd or 3rd tier youth coaches really that much more insightful (from 5,000 miles away, with no presence on the field) than a well-educated, motivated and experienced US youth coach? And are calls really enough to transfer the know-how that these Euro coaches have?
Annual Visits by Euro Club Coaches
Which coaches are coming? How long are they staying for? Who’s paying for their flight, hotel, rental car and per diem food expenses? What training of either coaches or players are they doing? For how many hours on how many days?
In reality most of these visits are for a week or two at most, by perhaps two second-tier coaches, sometimes in the summer when half the kids are “gone”, and are given to a specific age group or ‘level’ for a few hours during those two weeks.
‘Select Teams’ for Travel Tournaments
These are teams like a “West Coast Girls U15 Euro Club”, made up of players from multiple affiliated youth clubs. The kids are chosen as much for their parents’ willingness and ability to pay as for their soccer credentials.
They will travel to Europe, on the parents dime, to play in a tournament, or go on what’s commonly referred to as a “tour”, where they play a couple of friendly games, visit the stadium and tour some of the local sights.
These are tours that have been organized for years by third party companies for anyone with a team (and the money), but are now advertised directly by the affiliate club.
Are they worthwhile? For sure, as much as they have always been. It’s a holiday to Europe for parents and players, and it’s a way to get your player jazzed about soccer. That’s a genuine choice parents can make, of course.
But does it improve your soccer player? Does it increase your chances of playing for the Euro club? Of course not. What else could you have done with the thousands of dollars you spent (US tournaments, 1-on-1 training, summer camps, etc.) that would have improved your player’s chances of improving their game, getting to play at college, etc.?
The Big Promise
The big carrot often dangled in front of parents and players: players can be chosen to train in Europe with the pro club.
Many parents think their player is better than they really are. Many don’t understand the US Soccer system, think that NorCal Gold or Premier is the pinnacle, don’t know that USSDA exists, don’t know that their kid might be good in their local pond (even in a big pond like LA or Dallas) but is mediocre at best on a global scale.
Do one or two get chosen to go, all expenses covered? Maybe. But that’s after 1 or 2 have been chosen from your club to go to state tryouts, from which 1 or 2 were chosen to go to US tryouts, from which 1 or 2 were chosen to go to Europe. In other words the odds, after spending many thousands of dollars for travel and hotel stays, are miniscule.
For example, Liverpool have been doing this for years in the US, longer than probably any other club, and my understanding is that to date they have only taken 2 boys to Liverpool for a 1 week tryout, and neither progressed beyond that week. This isn’t a criticism of the Euro club (their only goal for their youth academies is elite talent identification after all), but parents needs to be aware of the reality of this.
In summary, these Euro club affiliations make many promises and often deliver on too few of them. There are probably exceptions, but in general the ‘return’ often isn’t good enough to justify the additional cost and inevitable changes at your club. Carefully evaluate your club’s implementation of any affiliation and how that implementation affects specifically your son or daughter.
Think carefully about which players might benefit more than others. For example, do the top 20% benefit because the club now attracts better players, but the bottom 80% get “pushed down” to make space for the new (and better) players but nevertheless have to pay more money every year for uniforms etc.? Consider carefully if and how the promised benefits of an affiliation trickle down to the large majority in your club.
How long will these affiliate programs last? In some cases, only until parents smell the bacon burning in the kitchen. Those affiliated youth clubs that make a much better effort to deliver the benefits to the majority of kids in the club can be successful with this if success is measured by a better soccer experience and education for the 80%.
My youngest participated in the FC Barcelona Summer Camp here in the Bay Area two weeks ago. My older two participated two years ago.
Authentic FC Barcelona coaches fly in from Spain to run these camps throughout the country every summer.
Before I describe our experiences, take a look at the above photo. Why do you think the kids are lined up like this? I’ll share the reason toward the end of this post.
I can recommend this summer camp because the kids are exposed to a truly positive futbol experience.
The soccer specific coaching is very good, of course, but, just as important, the coaches also emphasize and teach values.
These values are explained on the FC Barcelona website and include respect, effort, ambition, teamwork, and humility. And under ‘ambition’ you will see discipline and patience.
These aren’t just empty words – I’ve seen these in action many times in different situations these last few years – during summer camps here in the U.S. (both outdoor and futsal), during visits to FC Barcelona in Spain where my kids trained with Barça coaches, and during a tournament in Spain where we competed against and were able to observe FC Barcelona youth teams and coaches.
What makes these experiences so positive is the warmth and passion of these coaches. They expect a lot of course, but they don’t let these performance expectations overtake a values-based approach to developing youngsters.
The coaches never raised their voices (apart from making sure instructions can be heard, of course) and I’ve never seen any of them pull their face or turn around in frustration if the youngsters made mistakes.
They applaud effort, not results. They focus on learning, on guided discovery, not ‘answers’ and ‘instructions’.
They focus on creating an environment where experimentation is encouraged. They focus on teaching soccer IQ, a way of thinking about the essence of the game.
And here’s how this values based approach shows itself in more visible ways, through appearance, habits, and conduct:
- never be late – if you arrive 15 minutes before the scheduled time, you are late;
- shake hands when you arrive and when you leave – welcome each other;
- jerseys are always tucked in;
- uniforms, including bags and jackets, look neat and clean – no exceptions; you reflect yourself, your teammates, your team, your club, and ultimately your region and country (note that FC Barcelona first and foremost proudly represents Catalunya);
- laces are always tied properly;
- players line up and walk behind the coach;
- nobody talks when the coaches talk – you listen and can ask questions;
- apply what you are being taught to show that you want to learn;
- youngsters will watch other teams in between their own tourney games…
- …and they will sit quietly and pay attention, even to weak/boring teams;
The list goes on.
Now let’s get back to my opening question. Why do the FC Barcelona coaches teach the kids to line up in the semi-circle you see in the photo above?
For arguably the single most important value, listed first on this FC Barcelona website: respect. The two coaches taught the kids at my daughter’s summer camp that it is disrespectful to turn your back on your teammates.
Finally, let me comment on an aspect of these summer camps that often leads to misguided parental hopes and motivations.
Every summer the Barça coaches select one or two players from each camp to join a ‘Team USA’ for an international tournament in Barcelona.
A lot of parents I’ve met at these camps appear to be there in the hope that their son is going to be ‘discovered’ by FC Barcelona.
And after every camp there’s the inevitable complaining that x, y, and z youngster shouldn’t have been picked. My son or that other boy was a much better player! He scored many goals! And he was running so much more! He had more skills than that other player!
Well, let’s be clear that none of the youngsters attending these summer camps are being selected for a pro career at FC Barcelona.
The Barça coaches specifically tell the parents that they are not necessarily looking to just select the best soccer players. They are looking for that (relatively rare) combination of soccer ability and positive character. They are being selected because they clearly enjoy the beautiful game and reflect the Barça values.
It’s not about scouting the next Messi and it’s definitely not about encouraging that lone wolf player who might be the strongest and most competitive player and most skillful on the field, but rarely smiles and has no real interest in teamwork, humility, and the other players at camp.
I wish more clubs and coaches and parents would take these values more seriously.
There’s no magic, but you have to truly live and breathe them consistently, both the big picture and the details, every day.