By Mike Singleton
Spending soccer time in other countries is always an education in itself. Whether it has been England, Spain, Portugal, Russia, Mexico, or Brazil there are things I learn that always contributes to my continued education about this beautiful game.
Taking such nuggets from these countries and acculturating them to our country can be challenging but is a task that is always needed as we are a melting pot country and our beautiful game is very much a melting pot as well.
I write this as I sit at the airport in Brazil after nine days of practicing, playing, talking, and watching much soccer. Between having Brazilian pro coaches coach our Regional ODP team, playing multiple soccer games against local Brazilian teams, playing local futsal games, enjoying beach soccer, watching foot-volley, watching many games on television, and watching Flamengo train up close and personal I leave the country with many thoughts streaming through my head.
1) Despite having less access to money, quality fields, and equipment teenage players from Brazil seem to have superior technical skills to our players.
2) Futsal demands great technical skills and forces high speed of play (both thought and execution) upon players. In addition, players have to learn the basic principles of the game to play futsal and play both offense and defense … our players seem to sometimes take breaks in transition from one to the other in either direction.
3) The goals set up on multiple beaches and stands to watch beach soccer games show how pervasive a love this country has for soccer.
4) The goals set up in every small park in every neighborhood shows the pervasive love of soccer … these parks rage from sand to grass to turf to concrete.
5) Every night there is a quality game with competitive domestic teams to watch.
6) Flamengo, one of the five most popular clubs in the world, allowed our team to sit one yard from their field to watch their training, to take pictures, gave us a close up tour of their grounds and facilities, welcomed us with complimentary juice and snacks, came up to players after practice to sign autographs and take pictures … and Ronaldinho even came out a second round and gave his training jersey to a player and took a team picture with all.
7) The Flamengo players were smiling and laughing constantly throughout their training. The next day they won their Copa Libertadores game.
8) Foot-volley was on primetime television and on the one big screen TV in the restaurant as we ate dinner … wow!
These facts teach me many things and the constant questions I have heard from people regarding how we can make our players more like those in such countries. Here are some of my reactionary thoughts:
1) This is the result of many factors including points 3, 4, and 5. It is also the result of their culture being less focused on team results and tournaments and more focused on creating beautiful play. Players see creative play constantly and they hear and see the appreciation everyone expresses for such play … whether they win or not.
2) Where as indoor soccer is very good and some fantastic indoor fields are being constructed all over our country, futsal has a needed place in our soccer development. The way it forces technical development and speed of play in a small-sided environment can be hugely helpful to player development and is not replicated through indoor play. This game addresses particular weaknesses we see at all levels in our country and this game is much more popular in Brazil, Spain, and Portugal than in the USA. Hmmmm …
3) We can wish our game would become as pervasive as it is in Brazil, but it simply is not and will never be. However, introducing our players to the multivariate forms of soccer could be a way to keep them playing in fun ways without seeing it as “training.” If they are playing soccer like games in their free-time we coaches should be smiling.
4) I see basketball courts throughout Boston that are prime for such goals. Maybe finding a way to supply goals for these courts and working with Parks and Rec to secure them is a worthy endeavor. I will be looking to do this in Boston for sure.
5) MLS is getting better and better and television coverage of all international leagues is as well. The games are not on the major channels but they surely are accessible for our players now and that is a great thing!
6) What world-class club of any sport in our country allows such personal access and kindness to a foreign team of youth players? I wish our players could have such access to our professional soccer teams (without having to buy 100 tickets). Maybe fans are more important than customers? Maybe we need to think about which comes first … does one become a fan after being a customer or vice versa? Flamengo did this to help promote our players’ passion and now have a full team of passionate followers who did not know many of the players before this visit. They will now follow that team excitedly.
7) I loved seeing this! Here is to hoping we coaches all enable and enjoy such laughing and smiling during our practices.
8) This will never happen here but video is powerful and we all now have the ability to video our teams and put them on big screens. Maybe doing so more often could help fuel a little more passion … it’s worth a try.
Admittedly, nothing brilliant or world changing in the above words. However, we are a good soccer nation and need not change our world. Hopefully these nuggets and the nuggets we each take from our experiences help us all grow into a great soccer nation!
(Mike Singleton is the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association's Executive Director and the MIT men’s soccer coach. He is a Region I ODP Senior Staff Coach and a U.S. Soccer and US Youth Soccer National Staff Coach.)