Taking It Back To The Streets

Date: June, 2012 Posted by: Luis Gomez, Director of Coaching and Technical Development

What do I remember most about soccer, growing up in the streets of Bogota, Colombia? The enjoyment. I remember the concrete and dirt school yard where we anxiously looked forward to an unorganized game of futbol during recess. We played in our dress shoes and school uniforms with no cleats, sneakers, or shin guards. Two rocks or bricks made up each goal, and a ball was all we needed. And after school, we would challenge a neighboring school where my cousin attended. He brought his schoolmates, and I brought mine. Then, in an open field or a concrete yard outside one of the schools we played, no coaches, parents or referees. We made up the rules along the way. During the weekends, we played more street soccer, music blaring in an open field in front of my cousin's house or the back of my grandfather's restaurant where my mother worked.

I played my first organized game of soccer at the age of ten. Now living in the U.S., soccer was not as popular, so at that time there were only four recreational teams in the town I grew up in. There were no clubs, and coaches and referees were volunteer parents. Later in my childhood, as I entered high school, I quickly learned there wasn't a team, so my best friend and I decided to form our own, recruiting anyone who even knew what a soccer ball was. We called it the United Nations team because of the eclectic mix of Portuguese, Haitians, Koreans, Brazilians, Ecuadorians, Polish, Colombians, and one American. We were a close-knit group, on and off the field, and although we didn't win a single game our first season, we had fun. By the end of my senior year we made the playoffs.

Fast forward twenty four years, and now what do I remember the most about soccer? The complaining - parents complain about coaches, coaches complain about parents, and kids complain about both. Whether high school or club, there are few games I have recently enjoyed watching. So what happened to the enjoyment of the game?

Soccer in the U.S. today has become extremely competitive, leading to fundamental issues in player development. Even at the very early ages of eight and nine players are already being identified for the "top" club teams and being taken to out of state tournaments. This is the age where kids should be allowed to develop and have fun in a less structured environment. It is no wonder U.S. soccer has become so predictable. This structure is taking away the creativity and the fun from training. For these kids youth competitive soccer has become all "work and no play."

Another consequence to this ultra competitive environment is that game scores, league placements and tournament titles have become more important than the pure enjoyment of the game and the development of the player. All the way down the chain, clubs limit their attention and "best" training to the progress of their top teams. This places added demands on the coaches to win titles and championships who place more pressure on the kids to play and train harder. Parents then place added pressure on the kids to either make or maintain a position on one of the top teams.

Worse yet, it seems to me that the club system in America has cultivated inequalities from a "pay to play" culture. A talented player in the U.S. must have the money to pay the necessary club fees or the hefty academy fees to even have a chance to participate and play at the higher levels. In fact, many elite leagues today will only let players participate if they can commit to league, club and travel fees, making it unreachable for many talented and less fortunate players. At least in the past, these economically challenged players had an opportunity to showcase their talents at high school events. Unfortunately today's high school soccer is not a place to showcase a player's talent or for college coaches or professional teams to scout players. These days it's much easier and economical for these coaches to attend and recruit from club tournament showcases, where top club teams participate.

But enough of my complaining. I read once that if a complaint gets your attention and keeps reoccurring, maybe it is not really a complaint but rather a call to take your life and serve. For many years I searched for my calling, and all along it was right in front of me. It is in bringing the enjoyment back into the game that I grew up watching, playing and loving.

In many countries around the world kids learn to play soccer in the streets. Creativity and skills are learned in playgrounds and alleys and many times without any formal training. These informal games normally have few requirements and are typically free-flowing, raw games with no officials, parents and few, if any, fans. Set-ups are basic with small fields, goals, teams and rules that are often negotiable. Also, it's no coincidence that the sport of soccer is the most popular sport in the world - because it's cheap! You don't need fancy uniforms or fancy equipment to play. The game can be played with just a ball, a wall or fence used as a goal, or items such as shoes or clothing used for goalposts. But more than this, street soccer is about friends and community coming together, celebrating and bringing the fun back to game.

In many European and South American countries, it doesn't matter the level of income. If you are a talented player and good enough to be recruited into an academy, not only will the club pay for the training but in some cases, through residency programs, they will also educate the child. This is how the top clubs in the world do it and a big leasson learned when I traveled to Spain as part of a delegation of 44 U.S. Soccer Federation coaches. Here I had an opportunity to spend time learning from the best, including Real Madrid, Athetico Madrid and Getafe. After many lectures, discussions and observation of various professional and youth academy training sessions and some time to reflect, I realized that although U.S. soccer has come a long way in recent years, we have to level the playing field. We have to provide kids, who normally wouldn't have the opportunity to showcase their talents, the platform to succeed.

In conclusion, taking soccer back to the streets means giving kids more time to spend with their friends, dreaming of their favorite soccer idol and playing in a world cup final. It is creating a less structured environment where kids have a chance to be more creative and make more decisions. As parents and soccer coaches we have to step back and encorage our kids for the effort rather than yell at them for the mistakes they make on the field. It is less emphasis on the scoreboard and more on the learning process and the lessons in life. Most importaintly, it is about getting rid of of the barriers and to provide an opportunity for all to be successful. Low cost, freedom and enjoyment - this is street soccer. This was my experience, and this is when I enjoyed the Beautiful Game the most!