By Paul Gardner
The purest form of youth soccer -- maybe it is really the only form -- is street soccer. With its own rules, invented by the boys, without coaches or referees, anarchic but functional, plenty of appalling language but not (as I recall) much rough play, chaotic but with its sudden surprising moments of joyful teamwork.
The sport belongs to the city, my city, to its grubby streets, to the houses with their vulnerable windows, to the dusk as the sun drops slowly -- over there, behind the gas works -- and the streetlights take over, and mothers’ raised voices let you know it’s supper time.
I don’t recall that we banned adults, but their absence seemed to be tacitly accepted as the natural state of things. I can’t recall adults ever being around. Street soccer belonged to the boys.
Why shouldn’t boys be left to organize and play their own soccer, just for those few magical years? Why ever not -- after all this is nothing important, this is just a game, something you play at. It is also serves the rebellion of youth, the strong desire to be troublesome, to give adults the finger and not do what they command.
But ‘sivilization’ is at work. The adultification of children and their soccer proceeds apace. It gathers speed because playing pro soccer can now be a massively money-making career. Hence the youth-development industry. With all the money to be made from training and discovering young players, it makes no sense to leave things to chance, to just let boys be boys. They must be not only adultified, but academized and curriculummed and computerized too.
One wonders: How much room does all that organization and instruction leave for the boy-life spirit that is recognized as the heart and soul of street soccer? Virtually none, I’d say. But surely street soccer, a vanishing activity thanks to the rampaging automobile, still has a sturdy spirit to pass on to modern-day youth soccer? You would think so. But it turns out that the modern youth-development movement is not interested. The life-blood of street soccer, that it was strictly a boy-life game, is rejected immediately.
Youth development is now a serious business. It has to be well programmed, so adults are needed. And here they come, armies of them, all with impressive coaching badges and specialized knowledge that they pump into young teenagers at an age when the boys should be simply enjoying their soccer, should not be pestered with arcane formulae for better performance.
That process -- the one that turns boy-life into adult-life before the boys are ready for the switch -- is what youth development is now all about. It cares nothing for this vague, romanticized item called youth soccer. Did it ever exist, anyway?
Oh yes. Quite definitely it did. Memories of my own street soccer days assure me of that. But for me, there is more. Much more. In the 1980s I discovered the Bolivian youth club Tahuichi. I first became aware of Tahuichi when I saw a headline in the Argentine magazine El Grafico that read “You Have to See Tachuichi!”
One of the world’s top soccer magazines telling me I had to see a boys team from Bolivia? This had to be something special. It was just that -- living proof that 17-year-old boys could play a superb version of soccer, a soccer that was as yet uncorrupted by the tedious tactical requirements of the adult game, a boys' game that throbbed with the joy and the mischief and the surprises of boy-life.
How had this happened? I interviewed Rolando Aguileira who had founded the club in 1978. For a start, the founding was an accident, Rollie had only meant to provide private coaching for his two sons. Rollie talked and talked to me, but most of it was techno-babble. I decided that he had no idea how he had given birth to the most remarkable boys team I had ever seen. The boys, the coaching, the atmosphere -- and some other mysterious ingredient -- had come together and created a treasure.
Here was a well-trained youth team, an absolute delight to watch. It hadn’t happened by accident or magic, a lot of work had gone into this team. But what dominated the team’s play, was the brash atmosphere of street soccer. The Tahuichi boys enjoyed their soccer, they were having fun, you couldn’t escape sensing that, and you became a partner to the fun, basking in the smiles and the marvelous soccer.
I haven’t seen Tahuichi for some years. I am told they do not play now with that elan that once they showed. That may be so. Nothing lasts for ever. But they had their magnificent time in the sun, when they showed just how sparkling youth soccer could be.
One thing I feel sure about. That Tahuichi team would not appeal to the modern youth-developers. Simply too carefree, too committed to attacking play, not properly organized in defense, and so on.
For that reason, I am quite certain that no youth team as exciting as Tahuichi well ever come out of any academy, anywhere. The boys are being taught, younger and younger, to behave and play like mini-pros. There is no time now for anything that can be truly be called youth soccer. It is all falling under the control of the ever-clever adults.
Well, so what? If this youth-development binge produces the players, then who cares? Of course the academies and so on are producing players, plenty of them. But something is certainly missing. Where are the exceptional players? Considering the millions of dollars -- it may even be billions by now -- that circulate in the youth development industry, surely there ought to have been a noticeable increase in the number of exceptional young players.
I have failed to notice any increase, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Not long ago a gathering of top UEFA coaches pinpointed the virtual disappearance of street soccer as a setback to the production of skilled players. UEFA, in fact, has an “Introduction to Street Soccer” section on its website.
There have been plenty of efforts by coaches to recreate the world of street soccer. None succesful, as far as I know. Hardly surprising when coaches involve themselves in an activity that never had any use for them.
This is the major fault-line that bedevils youth development. On the one hand, it is an industry that works towards eliminating genuine youth soccer as a natural stage in the development of young players. But on the other, it can hardly be unaware that the street soccer it is helping to kill off was a crude but very efficient way of producing outstanding players. Perhaps more efficient than all the sophisticated techniques of the modern youth developers.
A nice contradiction, and one that will not be resolved until the experts admit that they don’t really know very much about what it takes to produce exceptional players. It is evidently a delicate and intricate and very personal process, not one that lends itself easily to the money-making values of an industry, nor to the strict disciplines of a curriculum.
A youth development program that pays attention to intrinsic but unruly youth values, and ceases trying to replace them, far too early, with more amenable adult attitudes -- that sounds like an idea worth trying. It also sounds like a request to development coaches to weaken their control over their young charges, which probably makes it an impractical, if not ludicrous, suggestion.
Rinus Michels said, or is alleged to have said, that the best way to coach young boys is not to coach them. Another non-starter for the development industry. But they might want to consider the ramifications, some of them outlined above, of another Michels comment on the nurturing of young players: “Street soccer is the most natural educational system that can be found.”