By Mike Woitalla
"The worst thing for a kid is to be on the field and hear his father screaming from the sidelines, and the kid has to look over and see that."
That’s from Pablo Forlan, the father of 2010 World Cup Golden Ball (MVP) winner Diego Forlan, one of 55 soccer superstars featured in Bruno Pisano’s book, “My Son The Soccer Player: The Secrets of the World’s Greatest Players as Told by Their Parents.”
Pisano tracked down the parents of great players from around the world for insight on the early years of Messi, Donovan, Drogba and many more. If the parents weren’t available, he interviewed the players. (And despite the “sons” title, included are Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy.)
“I never felt any pressure from my father -- only his company,” says Enzo Francescoli, the predecessor as Uruguay’s greatest player to Forlan, whose father added, “With Diego, I’d motivate him, but I very much believed in not talking unless he talked to me. If he wanted to know about his mistakes I’d tell him, and I’d also tell him about his best moves.”
Mia Hamm’s father, Bill Hamm, speaks of the time she, between 10 and 11, quit the game for a while:
“She got tired of playing soccer for some reason. Therefore she took a break for one of the seasons. She sat back for about six months. I used to continue coaching the team without her. In the next season, she returned with new enthusiasm. She had recharged her batteries and wanted to play soccer again.”
Landon Donovan’s mom Donna Kenney-Cash reveals there were times when he thought of quitting: “Sometimes, he used to think that it is not the game it used to be, that what started out as fun has become something stressful.” It happened when he was away from home at a young age. “But he never stayed negative for long. … Those were just small moments, and he always went back to his love of soccer and went on to fulfill his dreams.”
Albert Drogba urged his son, Didier, to focus less on soccer and strive to become a doctor or lawyer. Diego Maradona Sr. threatened to take his son’s ball away if he didn’t study more. Young Diego responded by spending more time with his teachers.
“But instead of learning, he began to play soccer with his teachers,” recalls Diego Sr. “The issue is that one of his teachers was his accomplice – they’d play soccer together and the teacher would forge good report cards for him.”
Other players besides Lionel Messi coped with being outsized. Francisco Richo, the father of high-scoring Swedish striker Henrik Larsson, lamented that his boy suffered from a poor physique as he “never drank milk or ate fish.”
“When [Henrik] was 12 or 13, because he was very small and skinny, the other players made fun of him,” Richo says. “His coach saw his quality and told him not to worry because he had the skills to make it, even though at the time he had to play with younger children because of his size.”
Larsson grew to 5-foot-10, but Andres Iniesta, scorer of the 2010 World Cup-winning goal for Spain, peaked at 5-7.
Jose Antonio Iniesta recalls his son’s early challenges: “At that time I was thinking that he will grow with time -- his body will grow. But at that age, teams look for players who are bigger. Most of them focused on height. Fortunately Andres was gifted both with technical ability and a great intellect. However, as I said, coaches at the time were skeptical.”
The book also includes detailed biographical features. Its interviews all end with queries for parental advice.
Says Johan Cruyff, “I think my advice for a father or a mother is not to rush their child. … If your kid knows that you are standing behind him through every moment, through thick and thin, then he will surely give his best.”
Nene Cubillas: “Give him the ball and let him enjoy it. Of course you can go to games and applaud him and encourage him, but try never to upset him or push him. Give him all the freedom in the world so that kids can be themselves and do the best they can.”
The Salvadoran playmaker, Mauricio Cienfuegos, settled in the USA after ending his career with the Los Angeles Galaxy as one of the top players in MLS history.
“For me, my son loves American football, so we support him in that because he enjoys it,” says Cienfuegos. “If your son likes soccer, art, another sport – support him in what he does. The most important thing is for your children to be happy and to do what they love.”
(For more on “My Son The Soccer Player: The Secrets of the World’s Greatest Players as Told by Their Parents” by Bruno Pisano, go to mysonthesoccerplayer.com/. The author donates $1 for every book sold to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.)