My recent travels took me to the barrios of Buenos Aires where some of the most historic stadiums and training grounds exist amongst the impoverished neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. Argentina is a country where the sport flows through the veins of the people, ask an Argentian what they do growing up and they say “We play futbol”. We spent most of our time at Argentinos Juniors, a club which bred players like Maradona and Riquelme, played at San Lorenzo and Racing, and toured Boca Juniors. All clubs with unique histories, and passionate players and supporters who would do anything for the success for the club.
The intensity and pace at which the players played the game in Argentina was at a level I have seen in very few instances domestically. Only in my few run ins with the youth national teams did I witness the intensity and passion for the game that rivals that of the Argentinian youngsters who roamed the training grounds when we trained. I asked in broken spanish, “Do these players go to school” to one of our tour guides, after being surprised at the number players at the training grounds in the middle of the day when we were given the field. “They are at it now” our liaison laughed, pointing out a very irregular attitude towards school and the sport. A much different attitude currently exists in the US. These young teenagers lived and breathed the sport, and would spend the entire day at their club trying to get better and improve, in hopes of one day playing in the stadium in front of thousands of supporters. Everyone of them hoped to someday achieve international glory for Argentina, and live on as a legend in the country which paints murals for its futbol icons. There was no educational backup plan to fall to if it didn’t work out, no other route to success as a person then one paved on the pitch.
We ask our American youth players who for the most part grow up in safe and prosperous neighborhoods and areas of the country with great families who support their aspirations, to compete with Argentine players desperate for a way out of their current living conditions at the international level. But the intensity and seriousness that average players from Argentina view the game is drastically different than the average American youth soccer player. Uncovering the passion and hunger for success in American players is necessary if we are ever to prevail on the global stage as a soccer nation. This problem however is one that is not easily solved as many American players view the sport in a very different and somewhat odd way compared to their international counterparts. I believe this view of the game can be uncovered in American players and the many soccer clubs we have in this country can strategically drive this mindset into their players by adjusting certain aspects of their structure and club curriculums. Hopefully some of these ideas will help activate the inner drive to succeed in soccer at all costs in our young American players.
The youth soccer players in America have a much different situation than those in Argentina. In America the average youth soccer player likely comes from a middle class home, and are equipped with backup plans or excuses in case soccer does not work out. The sport is merely a hobby or activity for some that they have always participated in since a young age. Soccer is seen as a popular activity to play, as it means the player is likely pushed into a social group at school with peers who participate in the sport as well. The drive and ambitions of playing at the highest level, playing professionally, winning your country the world cup is shared by so few young players in this country due to the comfortable conditions so many of our young players share. We also have a pink shoes and youtube culture to the game in this country. Many players care more about the color of their cleats, their highlight videos on instagram or youtube, and how they look when they play, rather than staying a hungry unproven student of the game. I’ve wrote about this topic back in 2016 here.
The situation is very comparable to the mindset of a fox vs. that of a rabbit. The fox hunts the rabbit and if it is unsuccessful, it will likely find something else to eat or goes hungry for a night. The rabbit is running for its life and will do anything to get away from the fox and survive, for if he doesn’t, it's game over. This may sound somewhat crazy, but the USA needs more players who view success in soccer as life or death, compared to just a nice meal if it works out. Only when we have clubs full of players who bring the highest levels of intensity and hunger to training every day, and who will stop at nothing until they make the first team at their club or for their country, will we find success as a nation in this sport. If we want to compete with countries like Argentina and many other countries who bred players in areas where life conditions are not ideal, we must work to reveal this mindset towards the game in our young players.
I am not saying it is a bad thing to live in a safe and comfortable environment, parents, clubs, and coaches should feel no guilt about providing this atmosphere for their players to grow up in, but it is now up to everyone involved to motivate their players to find this inner hunger and drive for success that rivals players who are desperate to change their life conditions. Clubs in my opinion should look to operate more as actual professional clubs do in other countries by establishing some sort of first team. Whether it is a men’s or women’s amature side, NPSL, PDL, or create a league with the surrounding clubs in your area to establish a team players can strive to play for some day in the future. Obviously this is easier said than done, but the more professional a club can become, the more the more passionate players will become about the club they play for and represent. If the club has a home complex, adding classroom facilities, a gym, or equipment and changing rooms will go a long way towards supplying players an environment where this passion for the sport can develop.
In my opinion clubs should also stop spoiling players with equipment and gear to wear around schools and at social settings. This may be a bit harsh, but it feeds into the mindset that something has been accomplished just by playing for a club that may have a reputation for developing players, or that has a DA academy. We dress players who have accomplished absolutely nothing in their playing career, in $50 uniforms and training tops. Most of this over spending is due to our American consumer culture and our want for our players to look sharp and elite on the field compared to other teams who may not be as financially well off. I would argue that it is making our players too comfortable and it feeds into this idea that image is more important than passion and determination. An equipment room at the club grounds, and an equipment manager who distributes gear to the players could not only save your club money in uniforms, training gear, and equipment, but it will also hopefully provoke the players to work harder to get to the top teams where the newest and best gear will likely be handed out.
Some coaches may struggle with really encouraging this tough, resilient, hungry attitude toward the game into their players, if they never found it as a player themselves. Coaches who never found a passion and drive for success in the game may struggle to really hold their players to a standard of training intensity and humility that is necessary to grow as a player. Obviously we want to avoid the coaches who are overly passionate and viewed as crazy by the young players they interact with, but I believe coaches of young players should have possessed at some point the same mindset that is being pushed on the players. Without having pushed themselves at the sport or something similar, they may not understand the effort and commitment it takes to really push to reach the highest levels of the game. Clubs should value coaches who have these desires and passion game and ensure they are the ones working with the younger age groups at the club.
It is important that club coaches understand that there needs to be a standard upheld for how the players approach the game. If a coach is at a DA club or another club with a first team, with players who hope to some day play for the top teams at the club, the players must be held the highest standard in terms of training intensity, professionalism, and they must uncover a passion for the sport and the club they are at through the club’s training environment. Coaches should also work hard to recognize players who possess this drive, and keep close tabs on them. These players may not be the players who are the strongest, tallest, or fastest, but they will always be the ones who listen to coaching points, give maximum effort at training, and are upset when they do not prevail. These players may exist in the lower teams at large clubs, and they may be hidden gems that if put in more challenging environments, may lift the level at training sessions, especially if you have players who are complacent and feel satisfied with their current status on the top team at an age group.
The passion for the game Argentines feel may never be felt naturally in every American. We have very few inner city futsal fields like the ones that liter Buenos Aires, no inner city murals dedicated to soccer players in this country, and we have very few national icons that young players can aspire to become. Every young player in Argentina wants to become a national hero like Maradona, Riquelme, Tevez, or Messi, very few young players in this country look at Landon Donovan in the same manner. Our young players need to find this passion for sport from other avenues as it is not naturally something most players find in this country. Some do, but it’s going to take the masses to uncover this aspect of soccer culture if we are ever going to be successful on a global stage and win a world cup. It is up to parents, the clubs, and the coaches to help uncover this hidden drive and potential in the young players at a young age. Hopefully this love and drive will take over the young player’s mindset, leading him or her to years of learning and training as hard as they can to reach the dreams and aspirations they have in this game.