Back in 1977 FIFA initiated an under-20 tournament and called it the FIFA World Youth Championship. With that title, the event sailed merrily along through 15 editions until 2007 when it suddenly became the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
For whatever reason -- maybe just the difficulty of deciding the age boundaries -- the word “youth” disappeared. And the truth is, we don’t talk so much about youth soccer these days. We do, though, have plenty to say about youth development.
Which is not the same thing at all. Because youth development has become a massive, pervasive, intrusive global industry. I Googled “Coaching Youth Soccer” -- and was promptly informed that there were 33,300,000 results. Good news? Well, assuming an accurate count, it’s certainly a massive affirmation of the widespread popularity of soccer as a youth sport. The bad news is that youth development is, covertly, a strongly anti-youth soccer activity.
First, we need a definition of “youth.” When does youth begin and when does it end? Reaching the age of 18 would seem to be the most widely accepted end-point, but the beginning apparently takes in all ages below that. Anyway, I’m making my own rules here. I’ll set the top limit at 17 years (which coincides with FIFA’s U-17 World Cup) and the beginning at 13. Most of the teenage years. Below that is what I tend to regard as boys soccer. I’ll take the five-year span between 13 and 17 as being representative of the youth game.
Which means that “youth soccer” is the sport as played by boys in that age span. But that is a miserly definition, almost a lifeless statistical one. There has to be more to it than that.
I think so. I believe there is something special about the sport as played in those boyhood years -- that “youth soccer” is not just a matter of birthdates.
Those years I’ve singled out -- from 13 to 17 -- are tumultuous times in any boy’s life. The growing-up years, the rebellious years, the self-discovery years … the years of awakening.
Is it even thinkable that the whirlwind of teenage emotions would not be present -- positively or negatively -- in the soccer that these boys play? No, it is not. Youth soccer has its own character and personality, a mirror of the young naive mischief-makers who play it. It should not be dismissed as a not-that-interesting stage on the path to the adult game.
Allow me turn poetical for a moment: Wordsworth, with his “The child is father of the man ...” thought. It is in youth soccer that the future player is born, it is his final fling, his last opportunity to play as he wants, before the instructional adults, the coaches, descend upon him and let him know what’s what.
I’m dreaming, of course. These days the coaches can’t wait until the boys are 17. They turn up earlier than that -- maybe even before the age of 13, the age I’ve selected as the beginning of youth soccer. If the youth-development coaches take over that early, what chance is there for genuine youth soccer to be played?
Almost none, I’d say. The youth development coach is not there to develop youth soccer, but rather to banish it and replace it with adult soccer. The world of soccer now has tens of thousands -- probably hundred of thousands -- of coaches devoted to this end. That is an indisputable fact. In a strictly academic sense, theirs is a worthy cause. It is a part of the educational process, part of growing up.
Boys -- youths -- must be eased away from boyhood frivolities, must be introduced to the more serious responsibilities of behaving like an adult. I use the word “frivolities” deliberately, because so much of what young boys do is regarded by adults -- either patiently or disapprovingly -- as mere “play.”
Play is OK for a while, but at some point it has to be abandoned for grown-up realities. Which will not be so much fun, but will be a lot more useful in adult life. When the time comes to turn away from play and embrace work.
All of this -- the maturing process, and the instructional education programming that goes into it -- is regarded as a good thing. No doubt it is. So let’s take a look at how youth development in soccer fits into this ostensibly beneficial scheme.
Look for Part 2 of "In search of
youth soccer -- Correcting bad habits, or the intrusion of the adults" -- on Friday, Feb. 20.