In search of youth soccer ... and do we really want it anyway? Part 3: Street soccer -- to be crushed or cherished?

(Read In Search of Youth Soccer Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE)

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.”

Part 1: The young naive mischief-makers ...
Part 2: Correcting bad habits, or the intrusion of the adults

27 comments about "In search of youth soccer ... and do we really want it anyway? Part 3: Street soccer -- to be crushed or cherished? ".
  1. Bob Winch, February 22, 2015 at 5:19 p.m.

    Great article Mr. Gardner. Street soccer and all street sports also is a great developer of leaders. Leadership is a skill that should be developed at a young age, like kicking a ball. Adult, coach driven practices robs youth also of the chance to organize, lead.

  2. Ramon Creager, February 22, 2015 at 5:27 p.m.

    Two of the best players ever to grace the fields of the MLS were Marco Antonio Etcheverry and his Bolivian compatriot & DC United teammate Jaime Moreno. Both are Tahuichi alumns. They took United to great heights and were always worth the price of admission. What fun it was to be a United fan then!

  3. Sean Mara, February 23, 2015 at 9:10 a.m.

    This article features 3 small fields that I frequent with my 9 yr olds for pick up soccer.

    We just left a quasi academy to play on our local travel team. The coach and club were great in many ways but they have more fun with pick up and playing on a town travel team. And I'm not worried about it being detrimental to their development.

    I've see quotes from Dutch legends and Ajax staff stating that playing with friends in the street is more important at a young age.

  4. Sean Mara, February 23, 2015 at 9:12 a.m.

    St. Benedict's in Newark had an exchange program with Tahuichi in the 90's.

  5. Laurie Webster, February 23, 2015 at 12:45 p.m.

    ...invented by the boys? ...let boys be boys? Boy-life? Really enjoy your blog but think you missed the mark with this post. You completely disregarded and minimized 50% of the population.

  6. Ginger Peeler, February 23, 2015 at 1:16 p.m.

    We took a young Freddy Adu and put him in the company of adults. He had to be taught discipline. He wasn't really allowed to be a teenage boy any longer. We started with a boy who played with joy and enthusiasm, who was a young kid on a great adventure, and we broke him. And then we blamed him for buckling under all the pressure that so many so fully grown men can't even handle. And after he failed to match our lofty adult expectations, we cast him aside.

  7. cony konstin, February 23, 2015 at 1:16 p.m.

    I have been coaching for 40 years domesticly and internationally. I have been with the Tahuichi Soccer Academy for 24 years. What we need in the USA is a REVOLUTION!!!! We need radical change. We need new leadership. We need a 21st century master plan that is mandated and not stuck on a website for people to look at. We need 300,000 futsal courts in our inner cities and another 300,000 court in our suburbs. The pay to play model is abomination. The kids need a place that they can call home. They need a sanctuary where they can play 7 days a week, 3 to 5 hours a day, no cost, 365 days a year, and no adult interference. The kids don't need more gimmicks, smoke n mirrors, $300 cleats, more coaching, or pretty uniforms. The kids need a sandlot/playground environment so they can become passionate and possibly magical. Our system is creating robots and not 21st magical warriors. Futsal can be our version of streetball. This is a no brainer but the pay to play model is what is killing our game. Just like Carlos Santana song says, Let the children play. The US is ready for a REVOLUTION and Futsal can be that revolution that both girls and boys need today, right now, this second. Go to your city govt/park n recreation and show them how a abandon tennis court can be converted into a futsal court or instead of building another soccer field but 8 to 10 futsal courts that can have 200 kids playing instead of 22 players. Be unorthodox. Be radical. Think radically. Think out of the box. It is time for a soccer revolution in the USA. Do something for you country as JFK once told us.

  8. Fidel Colman, February 23, 2015 at 1:32 p.m.

    Right on as always Mr Gardner!

  9. Robert Foltman, February 23, 2015 at 2:33 p.m.

    This is fantastic and so true. Ken Dryden wrote something similar years ago about hockey in Canada. Unfortunately. don't see it changing, too much money involved, money that is actually being wasted.

  10. Robert Foltman, February 23, 2015 at 2:35 p.m.

    Ms. Peeler makes a great point regarding Freddy Adu. He's blamed when the "system" failed him.

  11. Kent James, February 23, 2015 at 2:56 p.m.

    Paul, as usual, you highlight the tension points in youth soccer. I completely agree with your premise, that street soccer helps develop creative players, and we need more of it. But there are a few places I disagree; first, you defined youth soccer (in your 1st post) as 13-17 yr olds, and I'd argue that it is the youngest (U12 and below) who need to be playing street soccer almost exclusively. The "youth" you ostensibly focus on (13+) should be in a competitive environment (they certainly can't just play street soccer until they turn 18 and then turn pro). On the other hand, I think it is CRUCIAL (and thus I conceded your major point) that within that competitive environment, the kids get the opportunity to play pick-up (games where playing creatively for fun is more important than the score) on a regular basis (maybe once a week during the season, more often out of season), preferably with older players. This all goes to the overemphasis (especially at the younger ages) on winning, and you could not be more correct in your concerns about the "professionalization" of youth soccer, but this is especially concerning at the younger ages (which you profess to not include).

  12. Kent James, February 23, 2015 at 3:05 p.m.

    You have obviously chosen to focus on creativity and offense, because that is where the fun is. Fair enough (and I don't disagree). But at some point, it is also fun to win, and while winning should NOT be the focus at the younger ages (and should be de-emphasized as much as possible), and kids get older, winning does become more important (and not just to coaches and parents). At the older ages, winning does become a measure of progress, so while it should not be the only focus, there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to play to win (again, at the older ages only). Creativity and offense are part of a winning formula, but so are discipline and defense. And defense is also a skill; good defenses are very efficient, so that more effort can be put into offense. Likewise, discipline can be matched with tactical awareness so creative teams do not give up stupid goals (while some players go forward, others recognize they need to stay home to cover for them). And at some point, kids need to learn these skills. So yes, encourage creativity and fun, but as the kids get older, it is okay for coaches to teach tactics and teamwork in addition. Creative teams with no discipline can be defeated by much less skillful teams, and that encourages people to denigrate the value of skill. A little discipline and smart defense can go a long way.

  13. Kent James, February 23, 2015 at 3:14 p.m.

    Finally, as a path to the development of creative players, the path you recommend (street soccer, where everyone plays for fun and few exceptional players rise to the top) has its models of success (Argentina & Brazil), but is difficult to import to the US, because such a model requires that soccer dominates the culture, and that most of the kids are out playing most of the time, which certainly is not the case here. The counter-model, which you clearly abhor, is one where lots of resources are used to develop a much smaller "select" group of kids. And such a model clearly has its faults (kids are missed, politics and money dominate who is selected, kids get burned out, etc.). But if kids only play soccer 2-3x a week for a season or two each year, if they only play pick-up soccer with no instruction during that time, they're not going to develop very quickly (or very far), unless they are truly exceptional. What I would like to see is an effort to combine both models; inexpensive, no-pressure, fun focused on free play (with some skilled technical instruction) at the younger ages (U12 and below), with the gradual introduction of more competitive, more demanding environments as the kids get older (13-17), but even in that environment, pick-up has an important role to play.

  14. Chris Anderson, February 23, 2015 at 3:32 p.m.

    Again, I have to agree with Laurie. Why does Mr. Gardner refuse to even mention girls or women when he discusses soccer? Between this and his refusal to believe that anyone with a non-Hispanic last name can even play the game, leads me to believe that he is a very bigoted columnist.

  15. Michael Vaughan, February 23, 2015 at 6:37 p.m.

    You can't become a great player just kicking the ball around in the streets. There's plenty wrong with US youth soccer but we need organized soccer to develop top players.

  16. Scott Johnson, February 23, 2015 at 8:10 p.m.

    I would agree with the commenters who wonder why girls aren't mentioned--although perhaps Mr Gardner has noted that the US is a predominant world power in girls'/women's soccer, so he's less concerned there.

    At any rate, it's useful to enumerate some of the important differences between street soccer, and professional/international soccer (above and beyond player skill):

    * Athletic stamina. Under professional substitution rules (which youth leagues in the US do NOT attempt to replicate), field players who are not subbed out can expect to run over 6 miles over the course of a 90-minute match. More if it goes overtime. A big part of pro (and amateur training for HS players and above) training is physical fitness, so players can still be useful at the end of a match. Managing this war of attrition is also a big part of the manager's job. Street soccer games, OTOH seldom go this long, players sit when they need a breather.

    * Formation play and specialization. Street soccer games are not played on a 100m pitch, and do not generally involve 11-person sides. Rules such as offside are rarely enforced ("cherrypicking" may be disallowed by informal rules, but line tactics are another matter). The tactics are different, and strategy is relatively unimportant. Much of training, especially for older kids, is teaching formations rather than passing and dribbling skills. (And if you're not careful clearing the ball in streetball, you'll lose it or boot it in traffic. :P )

    Lots of this reminds me of similar conversations in basketball, in which it is often pointed out that halfcourt one-on-one or two-on-two does not prepare one adequately for fullcourt five-on-five. True enough, but the skills one learns from the smaller versions of the game apply directly to the full version of the game. There's just a lot more you need to know to play five-on-five well.

    One thing that the US does well with basketball--it's easier for ad-hoc recreational players to find a court at a local Y or other gym, for pickup games: a place that is better for playing than a hoop hung above a driveway, but which is available for unorganized play. All the nice soccer pitches, OTOH, are pretty much spoken for full-time by organized leagues (for games or structured practice) and are generally off-limits at other times. A big reason for keeping such facilities closed is resolving conflicts--a mature "soccer pick-up" culture, similar to basketball pick-up culture (governing, among other things, when players must yield the field to others who are waiting) doesn't really exist.

  17. stewart hayes, February 23, 2015 at 8:45 p.m.

    The advantages ... disadvantages of street soccer (for better or worse): I don't agree that it is always better. Who knows how many players are lost because they live on a street with bullies. But here we go:
    Usually small groups of player; Sometimes more than 11 per side; Lots of scoring because defenses are less organized and teams are generally smaller; Gk almost never used except to stand in front of a tiny goal; Playing daily or several times a day … hours of play per day; There are always goals of some kind; Players don't play to a line or cone or keep away; Games are competitive because there are older and younger players of all skill levels mixed in; Positions within teams are determined by peer pressure and strength of will; Learning is trial and error; Skill is more valued over age or size; No 'experts' get in the way of the game;
    Play continues until the majority are tired, the player with the ball goes home, it starts raining or gets too dark to see; If you don't really want the ball you don't get it; You have to be in a favorable position to be passed the ball or you have to win it yourself; If you lose the ball too often your team will ignore you, it hurts but it motivates you; You play where you deserve to be, the quicker, more skillful, are closer to the opposition goal, the slower weaker defend; Self esteem is earned ie. where you play and for how long is not democratic; If you lose there is always another game and new games where redemption can be found; Play is spontaneous, individual improvisation dominates the offensive play, individuals dribble a lot more; Motivation is intrinsic to the format … only those that want to play play … no registration fees no parental pressure to continue, only peer pressure; Teams are not even or balanced; Players don't wear bibs or vests; Players play skins or whatever they have on at first it is hard to separate friend from foe; Games are usually played on dirt, asphalt, grass or sand, depending on latitude; Shoes are optional; No one uses shin guards; There is no warm up; There is no stretching; /There no coaches; There are no referees; Play tends to be on the ground, heading the ball rarely is required; Players tend to walk the ball into the goal ie. they get in very close before shooting or passing to a teammate within 10 yds of the goal; It's survival of the fittest.
    Do we want to depend on this as our developmental model? I think we can re-create much of the good and reduce the bad by organizing 3v3 to 5v5 play days for youth players. Don't use bibs, or refs or coaches. Let players play with their friends. It will take clubs with good leadership to pull off this kind of 'street play'.

  18. Kent James, February 23, 2015 at 10:27 p.m.

    One thing that Stewart's very accurate description of street soccer reminded me is that another limitation is shooting with power from distance. Pickup encourages creativity, dribbling, short-passing, good touches, etc., but often with small goals (and no nets), shots from any distance or with any power are discouraged (since even an accurate shot may require a long trip to retrieve the ball). By all means encourage street soccer and pickup, but that is not enough to mold great players. That gives good programs the raw material they need to develop good players. Anyone who's ever played much pick-up knows there are some players who are great pick-up players, but disappear or are ineffective in full-sided games.

  19. Ric Fonseca, February 24, 2015 at 2:52 a.m.

    Very interesting article and even more, very interesting comments,except for the "revolution" guy, whose ideas are pie in the sky and will never be achieved here in the USA. There is some light at the end of the long youth soccer tunnel, though even if it is pay-for-play "light", here in Southern California an old and tried concept of small-sided games was introduced five years ago by a UK soccer company, Goals Soccer Center that owns and manages at least 43 complexes in England and Scotland, that more or less specializes in 5v5 and even 7v7 competition. In the Los Angeles area, more specifically in the City of South Gate, Goals Soccer Centers has operated an eleven court complex that is rapidly catching on (see Goals Soccer Centers in fb)so much that they're going to texpand and open teo if not three more of these small-sided games in the vast LA area. Yes, while it does cost to rent a court, local residents play for free or even at a greater reduced fee-for-play. It isn't too far from the street soccer that PG champions, yet, the years I've seen the facility in action, it has attracted players between five to eighteen years, as well as adults, and even more interesting, they have a "Soccer Squirts" program as young as 18 months! Unbelievable, yes? If you're in the area, stop by and check it out! Sadly, though, the concept that the Cony K guy supports will NEVER catch on here in the US, though I vividly remember my street soccer playing days in Mexico City, and even going to play in the nearby railroad yards, and virtually any large open space, parks, monuments, and until we were kicked out, flat open spaces in cemeteries....

  20. Teresa Buffington, February 24, 2015 at 8:32 a.m.

    Stewart=good post. Exactly as I saw it as the playground parent before school. 2nd graders against 3rd graders...they have also taken away so much recess time before and after school.

  21. Gus Keri, February 24, 2015 at 12:18 p.m.

    Paul Gardner depicted an unrealistic rosy picture of street soccer, but the reality is more like what Stewart Hayes described. I know that because I played street soccer all my youth years until college. What we need is some combination of boys-soccer and Adults-soccer. And for those who criticized Paul for using the term boys-soccer, he was referring to an era where girls were not participating in such activities for a social reasons. Nowadays, things are different.

  22. Ginger Peeler, February 25, 2015 at 9:06 a.m.

    Gus is right. Boys were playing soccer long before the girls. The first FIFA Men's World Cup was held in 1930; the first Women's in 1991. Boys are, as a rule, bigger, stronger and faster than the same age girls. Yet the girls reach emotional maturity sooner than the boys. Colleges have had men's soccer teams for years and there've been many professional outdoor and indoor leagues that come and go, but that the men can aspire to. There was little college women's soccer until Title IX forced the schools to open up collegiate sports for women. We had one women's league that folded and now we're trying again. PG is talking about the game as he grew up playing it and how it's now changing.

  23. Sean Mara, February 26, 2015 at 7:44 p.m.

    Michael V.,
    Who said anything about getting rid of organized soccer? And no one said anything about "just kicking the ball around in the street." I understand Diego Costa only played in the street until he was 16. Skills can be honed while playing 5v5 for hours on end thru the summer...winner stays on! As Berkamp said, "better than a coach telling you to dribble around a cone."

  24. Sean Mara, February 26, 2015 at 8:01 p.m.

    I played with a guy at Kearny High School who pulled off a rainbow over a player that went on to a full D1 scholarship. He pulled it off at the Courts in Harrison, NJ and received a boot in the arse from the victim (who was 4 yrs his senior) after he passed him. - Pick up builds a thick skin as well. Ha!

  25. Wesley Hunt, March 2, 2015 at 7:24 p.m.

    Stuart Hayes you got it exactly right for street ball except my experience was with basketball. The best players spent most everyday out on the courts playing till dark. By the time they were 12 basic skill and creativity was hardwired into there nervous system. If they were lucky and got a good basketball coach in school and they would start to learn nuances of the game beyond total ball control.

  26. Wesley Hunt, March 2, 2015 at 7:34 p.m.

    As for "pie in the sky" for futsal courts in all the cities it is not so impossible as you would think. I found it relatively easy to convince our city to let me put up futsal goals on a couple of tennis courts. Price was that I and some other coaches would run a summer pick up futsal program through their recreation department a couple of nights a week. The goals stay in place for the rest of the week and kids can play on them when ever they want. Not unusual to see 20 or so kids down there on a Saturday morning in the summer playing. Futsal works because better than the full size fields because the courts and nets are small so you don't need so many players to play the court.

  27. Wesley Hunt, March 2, 2015 at 7:48 p.m.

    The only reason futsal courts would not be everywhere like in South American and increasly in Europe is that there is no money in it. I run a winter futsal league and there is no immediate money in setting up street ball for me unless the players later play in my league. However, the same was true for soccer fields until they started to play soccer in public schools. Then football fields were modified and practice fields were built and clubs and academies started to flourish. Some schools even have their own dedicated soccer fields. Maybe the same thing could happen with futsal but it would be competing with basketball rather than football. Not sure if I will see that in what is left of my life but one never knows. I like Cony just wish that USSF would put a little more than talk into how great small sided play and futsal is for development.

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