By Paul Gardner
To say that Mexican youth soccer had a good 2011 does not even begin to describe the quite exceptional achievements of the Mexican boys.
To achieve, within the space of a couple of months, triumph in the U-17 World Cup, and then a third-place finish in the U-20 World Cup is success on an almost unthinkable scale. Only Brazil does that sort of thing. In fact, Brazil did mirror the Mexican saga in 2011, winning the U-20 world cup and finishing fourth in the U-17s.
We expect that sort of thing from Brazil. But, Mexico? Clearly, important developments are taking place down there. This was not Mexico’s first U-17 win -- they had already won the World Cup in 2006.
Considering that we share a vast border with Mexico, also that we (that’s the soccer “we” I’m referring to) spend a good deal of money, time and effort on youth development, we should surely be taking a close look at what the Mexicans are up to.
An opportunity to do just that came at the recent NSCAA Coaches’ Convention in Kansas City. The enterprising Joe Cummings, who now runs the convention, made it his business to bring in two members of the Mexican Federation’s youth division to impart, or at least explain, some of their wisdom. I spent some time with Jose Enrique Vaca, the program’s general coordinator, and Jose Rosario Pina, the goalkeeper coach, then attended one of their sessions. And what did I learn? Above all, that success on the Mexican scale is not a sudden thing. Well, OK, we all feel that we know that.
But to have the details of a highly successful program spelled out, as Vaca and Pina did, is to realize the importance of those unglamorous items, administration and organization. The setting up of a nationwide system of scouting, ensuring the collaboration of the country’s pro clubs, the holding of national camps. But again, there’s a familiarity there. Don’t we do all that right here? Aren’t we supposed to be good at that sort of thing? Come to that, wouldn’t the average American bridle at the thought that Mexicans could do that better?
Probably. But the fact has to be faced. One factor mentioned as particularly important by Vaca and Pina was that the pro clubs had been persuaded to play youth games (at both age levels) alongside pro fixtures. Thus a game between Chivas and Club America would always be preceded by games -- highly competitive games -- between the clubs’ U-17 and U-20 teams. “We’ve convinced the club owners and Presidents to get with the national program -- there is now no resistance from the clubs,” said Vaca
Meetings between the Federation staff and club coaches are held every three months, and Vaca reports that over the past 10 years or so there has been a real improvement in their programs -- with the introduction of areas like nutrition and psychology.
The idea of dedicated youth academies is only now beginning to take hold at the pro clubs ... a hint that great things can be accomplished without academies (or, maybe, that the setting up of academies does not necessarily bring success). Vaca calculates that, in the under-17 age group, there are some 12,000 boys playing with the country’s 18 pro clubs.
I was surprised at the amount of time that selected boys are expected to spend at national camps -- “There are 10 or 12 concentrations [at the Mexican Federation’s HQ in Mexico City] a year,” said Vaca, “each lasting about 10 days.”
As I always feel that giving a young player hefty doses of two different coaching systems (club and Federation) seems like a recipe for confusion, I had to ask ... but Vaca was adamant that all was well, “It helps the boys to be playing in different ways. They’re going to be better players, I’m sure.”
And yes, the Mexican Federation does scout Mexican-American players. As prospective national team players, of course -- “but we don’t take them to Mexico, we want them to stay in the USA, to live there, to be with their families, to keep studying. We don’t want to have boys who don’t want to come. They must make the decision. We want to respect the USA.”
Former Mexican national team coach Javier Aguirre once told me that Mexican teams struggled at the international level because they had a miedo de ganar, a fear of winning. Is that still a factor, I wondered. “That was true,” said Vaca, “We thought only of qualifying from the group stage of a tournament, of the fourth, or maybe the fifth game. But not now. We’re competitive now. We’re no longer thinking of just that fourth game. The young kids feel now like they’re world champions. They’re learning to be not just good players, they’re learning how to behave in hotels, in press conferences. Not long ago their hero was Cuauhtemoc Blanco -- a great player, but not an educated man. Today the boys look to Chicharito, educated, he speaks English, he’s successful in Europe.”
Complicated as it undoubtedly is, I’m inclined to think that the organizational element is the straightforward part of youth development. What truly separates Mexico from the USA is the superior quality of their players. Their uniformly excellent technique, the smoothness of their passing game, the utter naturalness of their movement.
This was touched on by Vaca, who drew worried looks from the hotel breakfast-eaters as he stood up in the restaurant to demonstrate how he wanted players to run and to move and to pass the ball.
But those are qualities which the Mexicans can almost take for granted. In the USA, one can never be sure. Too often, in their absence, we make do with substitutes -- we concentrate on size, particularly at the youth level, or on tactics, or on fitness. Right now, Jurgen Klinsmann seems obsessed with fitness, calling in his fitness gurus to work miracles, though how they can do that during the short periods that national team players are available to them, I really don’t know.
I can find excuses for Klinsmann. He cannot hope to teach pro players the ball-skill talents they should have learned when they were young. Maybe he feels he has to turn to fitness, but it is a depressing thought -- especially as crash-courses in fitness are not likely to work either.
Nothing can take the place of the most basic of soccer skills - the ease of movement with the ball. The Mexicans have that. Americans, by and large, struggle in that area. If we continue the attempt to replace true soccer skill with fitness or tactics or whatever, we shall forever be in the position that the Mexicans feel they have now overcome: concerned only with winning the fourth game.