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.)