Italian-American: Playing youth soccer in Italy

By Christopher Pepe

Until last year, my son was playing for a U.S. Soccer-sanctioned Pre-Development Academy soccer team in Northern California. A young competitive team, eager to play 11-aside on a large field against much older kids. Well-coached, and filled with raw athleticism mixed with the bounty of racial diversity afforded in the USA, the squad was competitive even playing against faster and stronger kids from San Francisco and beyond.

After 15 years in Silicon Valley, however, we decided that we would throw caution to the wind and take a Family Sabbatical to Italy. A luxurious and foreign concept, that had us jettisoning team affiliations, jobs and friends alike. A frivolous and financially irresponsible endeavor to be sure; and a notion reserved for late night dreams and drunken dinner conversations. Certainly not for real life.

Irrespective, our minds were set, and the adventure would commence despite minor protests and complaints. My son, while upset at the prospect of leaving his starting midfield position for Redwood City’s Juventus PDA, was anxious to dive into the world of calcio, and ‘up' his game Italian style. He didn't speak any Italian, but when I told him he would be in class with Roberto Baggio's son, he was giddy with anticipation and could barely wait for our flight to Milan.

Having chosen the mid-sized town of Vicenza in the Veneto region of Northern Italy, we rented out our home, notified our friends, teachers and coaches and set out on our journey. A journey that has had us observing a beautifully different culture, and questioning some of our life choices.

Throughout, we found that soccer has been a wonderful connecting point for our family, and has provided numerous lessons into the lives of Italians. Not just within the sport and its youth development, but also into the attitudes and approaches that continue to make Italy one of the most desirable places on earth, and one of the most successful soccer programs in the world.

Having grown up as an American in Northern Italy myself, and subsequently finding my vocation in the business of soccer in the USA, I was fascinated at the stark contrast in how we approach the game vs. our new found friends.

The author (left) and his son, 40 years later.

The USA is built to always reach for the stars, in Italy you follow a well worn path

As Americans, we exist to build a better life for our children, just as our parents tried to do for us. And, we believe this is possible through hard work, dedication, etc, etc. An admirable, if exhausting, outlook on life, and one that has seen unparalleled growth in the 250 years of our existence as the United States of America. While the frescoes in my neighbor’s apartment are twice as old as the age of my home country, she has worked as hard at preserving history as we have at shaping it.

After all, an Italian perspective is to preserve and honor the past, and follow the well-worn path laid out in front of you. Certainly not an American outlook, as further exemplified by the expectations we have of our kids on the soccer field.

At some point in the evolution of soccer in the USA, it seems we all became convinced that our children could or even would play professionally … statistics be damned! A truly American belief, born out of our eternal optimism and sometimes nauseating can-do spirit.

Despite the lack of a broad-based structure to scout and identify young talent, we still believe our kid will be the one. Irrespective of the millions of kids playing soccer for countless hours every day, we think the two hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday is enough. Despite the desire buried deep inside the impoverished kid that needs to play to find a better life, we are convinced it can be done. It’s a matter of expectations, and if there is one area where the USA over-indexes against its soccer-rich counterparts, it’s in confidence and its closest offsprings: expectations.

In Italy, instead, it is generally accepted at an early age that your kid won’t play for Inter or AC Milan. The best talent is selected early-on, in some ways lowering the level of expectations that your son will become a professional player, and easing your desired outcome for this weekend's game.

Nationwide rankings are not discussed or, to the best of my knowledge, even kept at the youth level here. The game is not played to bolster coaches’ ratings or build association points or prestige.

Every town and village has its own top-flight squad, and a structure below that ladders its way up. Whether the top team plays in Serie A, B or C, or somewhere below, matters little other than the fact that it enables every player in every town to continue to play for as long as they may choose.

In our adopted town in Italy, knowing that the ‘best’ and most connected kids were playing for our local Serie B youth team, Vicenza Calcio, weekends have become much more relaxing. Oh sure, you do get to play against them, if only to see how the game is properly played.

And, yes, exposure is possible even at the lowest levels and in the smallest town, but is identified early on freeing the mind and the soul to play for the love of the game and with no particular professional ends in mind. Of course, I am still American at heart, and believe that my son has the talent and determination to succeed in soccer, even at the professional level. We don't squash dreams where I call home, and believe that he will and should continue to reach for the stars.

Italians play soccer for fun, Americans play soccer on a schedule

My son’s new school in Italy is attached to one of the many local churches, Chiesa del Carmine. As tourists, we had often marveled at the number of churches in Italy, rarely seeing the hidden courtyard sheltering a small calcetto court behind (think: small-sided games of 5v5 on a basketball-style court).

The Carmine courtyard has a small-sized soccer field, and numerous well-spaced trees that act as goalposts for any number of after school pick-up games. As the courtyard turns into a public park in the afternoons, kids from the neighborhood rush to pick teams, wearing last years Juve or Milan shirt bought at the market for 10 euro.

They Ro Sham Bo to determine teams, and proceed to play with reckless abandon. There is no structure or hired coach, there are no fees or scheduled breaks. Kids only stop play to cheer the slickest new move, or to get pointers on how to execute the latest trick. Older kids look out for younger kids, and younger kids test their toughness against older kids.

No meals will be missed, but kids play until darkness descends and their hearts are full of the beautiful game. It is here among friends where new moves are tried, individual skills are honed, and confidence is built. In the USA, I would drop off my son at assigned times to run and kick and learn soccer's structured basic skill-set. I would then rush to bring my daughter to her practice at the same time; do a bit of shopping; or maybe sneak in a run.

There was never an after school pick-up game or other opportunity to play. I could often convince my friend Marvin, a Salvadoran-American, to bring his three sons and meet at the local park. But even then, we never had enough players for a spirited match, and would make up games or run through drills. I have often believed that U.S. youth soccer is dominated by ‘organized’ babysitting, as opposed to spontaneous play, and this notion has been reaffirmed while living in a country that has soccer as part of their very DNA.

While soccer remains perched on the cusp of a real mainstream following in the USA, we continue to excel at ‘soccer-by-appointment,’ rather than evolving into a sport driven by passion. Kids in Italy, while not quite filling every piazza with neighborhood matchups, still play calcio more for the fun of it, than the appointed necessity of it all.

Italy is a team-first country, the USA is a win-first country

On my son’s Italian team (San Lazzaro), sponsored by the local pizza joint (Pizzeria Albera), there is no one outstanding athlete that can out-run the pack, and score off a long ball sent from the defense. It helps of course that, at this age (until age 13), kids play 9-a-side games on small-ish fields, with even smaller goals. There are three periods of 20 minutes a-piece, and little substituting.

At the start of each game, kids line up and walk to the center circle, while parents applaud both sides in an effort to set a standard for fair play. Once play begins, the focus is on playing the game properly and as one cohesive unit, one team. When the ball does cross the end-line, the keeper, no matter his skill level, must always play the ball from the back to his expectant defenders.

The team will then work the ball up through the midfield, and across the halfway line. Sure, this leads to countless mistakes and numerous unaccounted-for goals; irrespective, the emphasis remains the same, and the game must still be initiated from the back. It's a rare match when the keeper punts the ball more than twice, and even more rare for a long ball to be played.

It didn’t take long for my son to understand that despite his skill on the ball, in Italy teamwork is the central focus, the everything for soccer here. At the first team practices, my son learned to clap, skip and jump in synch with his team. Often doing simple drills over and over until each player learned to move in perfect unison with his teammate.

When he at first didn’t shower with the team after practice, the questions came fast and concerned (was the water too cold? did he understand that showers were available?); and if he arrived already dressed in practice gear for practice, people wanted to know why he didn’t change with the team (didn’t he like the other players?).

Now, he arrives and leaves fully dressed in his beautiful Italian street clothes, pants properly cuffed and hair appropriately gelled. Like the people of Italy, the sport is meant to be social, collective and enjoyed as a group. Not unlike meals, holidays, and life itself. Soccer is played with unity, with cohesion. Italian youth quickly learn that the pass is essential, and that there is no room or patience for selfish play. While a nifty move can be appreciated, it’s the beautiful pass that is praised. Certainly, winning remains an objective, however it’s the appearance of play, the ‘bella figura,’ that matters most. Losing well, and looking good, are acceptable; losing bad, and looking bad, are not.

Italy has only calcio, the USA is spoiled for choice

While the professional game in Italy is still often beset with corruption and racism, the youth game forms part of an intricate social structure that contains layers of amateur teams and professional associations that neatly ladder up to the professional Serie A. It is the king of sports, with no queen or royal family around.

With a daily best-selling pink newspaper dedicated exclusively to the game, and annual Pannini sticker books snapped up at the start of each season. While premium channels have gobbled up the rights to show the best leagues and matches, you can still watch commentators and fans watching and reacting to a match on free-to-air channels.

With limited choice of other sports to watch on TV, kids speak almost exclusively of their favorite local or champions league teams and players. There is no NFL, NBA or MLB; no World Series, no Super Bowl, no March Madness. There remains a deep seeded belief that Americans play baseball and American football, and that we have yet to discover the beautiful game.

There is no concept or understanding of the number of kids playing the sport in the USA, structured or not. Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco help to extend the name of Major League Soccer (MLS), but recent decisions by the Italian national team coach do little to lend it credibility.

And Italy has generations of soccer heroes, players to emulate and aspire to. American kids still aspire to be more like the global marketing icons, likely as much influenced by the latest big company campaign, as the latest shoe or FIFA EA game. Pressured by fathers and grandfathers of Italy, boys learn to bleed the Azzurri of Napoli, and recall the antics of Dino Zoff or the legend of Maldini. Mondays in the USA are still dominated by NFL trash talk at the water cooler, and Steph Curry replays on the school courtyard. While there is no doubt that soccer will continue to grow in the USA, among the many choices available, it is hard to fathom a day when it is the everything that it is in Italy.

Despite these many differences, however, we found that a young American kid who is well-coached, learns the language, and has a passion for the game, can play at the same level as the kids at the upper end of Italian soccer. There is no slaughter rule, and there are no year-end trophies for participation. Finding 11 kids who can pass the ball and kick properly is not a chore, but a matter of fact given that most kids are born to eager fathers, former players, and ardent fans.

Italians have their own unique word for the game -- ‘calcio’ -- not used by any other country or language. Anywhere. Italy is a country that uses calcio to employ its retired ‘pensioners’ to manage youth teams and fields, and a more perfect marriage may be hard to find.

A country that habitually collects team uniforms after matches to wash them, and returns them the day of the following match. A country that aligns the youth soccer season to mirror the school year, from September to May. Calcio and life are inextricably intertwined in so many ways here. Even if game times often seem like suggestions rather than agreed start times, calcio is precise in its contribution to Italian life. To be sure, here, you learn from a very young age that soccer is much more than a game. It’s a way of life.

(Christopher Pepe is a founding executive of Major League Soccer, and has spent over 20 years advising numerous brands globally about the marketing and commercial aspects of the beautiful game. He is finishing work on his book retracing his family’s struggles, reflections and adventures abroad. His son and daughter both played in the Italian youth soccer system and are now back with their teams in Redwood City, California.)

17 comments about "Italian-American: Playing youth soccer in Italy ".
  1. Fire Paul Gardner Now, September 15, 2016 at 1:09 p.m.

    Terrific article - thanks!

  2. Ahmet Guvener, September 15, 2016 at 1:15 p.m.

    Bravo as the Italians say... Incredible article laying down the basic differences between USA and Europe in terms of youth development.
    When I came back to USA after 30 years, spending a good of my time as a top level soccer executive in Europe, I realized exactly what you pointed out in your article about the U.S. soccer youth development program. It is a pity that USA with all of its resources is not a major soccer nation -except in women's soccer - still. was not 30 yer

  3. don Lamb replied, September 18, 2016 at 10:57 a.m.

    The point of this article is that it is not about resources. It's about culture.

  4. Kent James, September 15, 2016 at 1:31 p.m.

    Excellent article. Always good to see what they do in other countries. It is this soccer culture that is so important, and so hard to replicate (or even, create anew, in our own version). Getting kids to watch the pros and play on their own (anytime, anywhere) can be a battle, especially when there are so many other options, and it is hard to get the kids together (though social media can help with the latter).

  5. Wooden Ships, September 15, 2016 at 2 p.m.

    Very fun read. Reminded me of my heavily influenced, Italian, St. Louis experiences. All through the 60's and early 70's team and controlling the ball came first. Creativity just happened or it didn't. As Christopher Pepe mentioned, we did have other sports we followed closely too. But, for me, he described why I first started playing in 1960, the passion of the Italian style of play.

  6. Miguel Dedo, September 15, 2016 at 2:07 p.m.

    How many readers noticed that the games and organizations described are entirely separate from what we in the US think of as soccer DEVELOPMENT -- building a strong national team? That small part of soccer in Italy is drawn off early, the activities described here do no involve aspirations of national glory.

  7. R2 Dad, September 15, 2016 at 7:02 p.m.

    "the keeper, no matter his skill level, must always play the ball from the back to his expectant defenders.
    The team will then work the ball up through the midfield, and across the halfway line. Sure, this leads to countless mistakes and numerous unaccounted-for goals"--yeah, but also boatloads of world-class defenders. We have zero world-class home-grown defenders. Until US Soccer cares to change this, nothing will improve enough to move the needle. Great article, BTW.

  8. beautiful game replied, September 17, 2016 at 5:41 p.m.

    RD2 tells it the way it is here...IMHO, too much organization is not beneficial. I played travel club ball in Philly in the early 60's...practice was with the club semi-pro team of adults and teens which is much better for the learning experience than kicking around and running without purpose.

  9. Miguel Dedo, September 15, 2016 at 8:23 p.m.

    R2 Dad missed the point. This part of Italian soccer is not about making world-class anything. It is about making the game a fun part of the local community.

  10. R2 Dad replied, September 16, 2016 at 11:41 a.m.

    Miguel, I actually think you're the one who is missing the point. Yes, of course it's fun, it's community, it's Italian--duh. Italy is a monoculture. The sentences I quoted are relevant specifically because we, as a culture/nation, are literally unable to do exactly this: everyone, playing by the same written and unwritten rules, to develop a team vs focus on individuals. All it takes to blow up the Italian system is to have one coach playing kick-and-run. One coach, who grew up only knowing kick-and-run, indoctrinating his players with the same mentality. You stick that coach in Italy and either the parents run him out of town OR he blows up the finely-cultivated social structure so pleasantly described in the above article. We can't be Italy. So how do we simulate the environment to get the same results, soccer-wise?

  11. Phil Love, September 16, 2016 at 8:58 a.m.

    It's not just that the Italian kids are playing lots of pick-up soccer for fun, it's that they're playing anything on their own with other kids without supervision. One of the saddest things in my soccer life happened when I was coaching U-10s. We had some time at the end of practice so I said, "OK, pick teams and scrimmage." The kids looked at me as if I'd asked them to turn the grass on the field into gold. I had to show them how to choose captains and pick teams. While they played they kept looking to me to call fouls and resolve disputes. I refused, telling them it was their game to run.

  12. Joe Linzner, September 16, 2016 at 10:53 a.m.

    It is not only the Italian way. Born in Austria I can testify that my exposure to the game, mirrors this article to a tee. Only the language is different! Great article.. Vielen Dank!

  13. GA Soccer Forum, September 16, 2016 at 12:06 p.m.

    How were the kids organized by age? Birth year, school year etc?
    Does thier seasons run from jan - dec, vs aug - june?

    are parents allowed to watch?
    do parents talk to the coaches?
    are the coaches hired professional coaches or experienced parents?

  14. Alvaro Bettucchi, September 16, 2016 at 3:25 p.m.

    I have been doing research on Italian American History in the U.S. This was a beautiful, well written article. The 32 times I have been to Italy, I miss their way of life, and their "Calcio" attitude.

  15. Gus Keri, September 18, 2016 at 5:34 a.m.

    It's not the Italian way. It's the way all over the world except in the USA.

  16. Kevin Sims, September 21, 2016 at 10:43 a.m.

    Yes, the secret to the USA becoming an elite world soccer force = CULTURE, CULTURE, CULTURE. We need quality coaching, quality environments, quality leagues, quality opportunities for all, quality efforts to find & develop talent. Sure. But the secret ingredient? CULTURE, CULTURE, CULTURE ... and it simply will evolve so that soccer is more integral to the lives of more American families. But it most likely will never take hold to the degree it has in elite soccer nations; but it will take hold enough to get the USA to the top someday ... likely after all of us are gone.

  17. Wesley Hunt, September 26, 2016 at 10:30 a.m.

    Kevin I grew up playing a sport like this in America but it was basketball not soccer and it was many years ago when kids had more time to just play. Now I coach and play soccer and futsal. I have kids who will scrimmage if given the chance but many are so scheduled that they never make it to the courts that often so instead of 20 or 30 kids waiting to play on our two outdoor futsal courts we are lucky to get 10. The ones that come are obsessed and soccer and futsal is all that they talk about. Maybe when they have kids soccer will become more a way of life. Hopefully I will be still alive at that point.

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