July 8, 2010

What it takes

Here's that fine Bruce Sokolove article from four weeks ago in the NY Times magazine, "How a Soccer Star Is Made" on how Amsterdam's Ajax club trains seven-year-olds to be sold off to be eventually sold off to Chelsea and Real Madrid in the bigger leagues. The Netherlands have made three of the last ten World Cup finals despite a modest (although hardly tiny) population.

The inefficient American system of creating soccer players (play a lot of games, try to get a college scholarship) sounds both feckless and pretty nice, compared to this high efficiency Dutch machine of nature and nurture:
It is not unusual for players at De Toekomst to come from middle- or even upper-middle-class backgrounds, and virtually none come from poverty in a nation where the standard of living is high and literacy is 99 percent. The demographics are not much different from the soccer-playing population in the United States, where most players still come from suburban comfort. In the Netherlands, though, youth players may end up with less education than their parents in order to pursue professional soccer careers, starting with a less-demanding high-school curriculum than they otherwise might take. 

... [Dylan] said he guessed that probably only two or three of the boys he began with when he was 7 would have pro careers in their sport. “I would feel very bad if I’m not one of them,” he said. “I have tried everything I can do to make it. I haven’t done as much in school as I could. I would feel like I’ve been wasting my time all these years. I would get very depressed.”

I asked if some of what he learned at Ajax — focus, perseverance, the ability to perform under pressure — might benefit him no matter what he ends up doing. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “We’re training for football, not for anything else.”

Currently, the U.S. usually is in the top 16 teams in the World Cup. That's not bad. Not great, but not bad. I personally don't care who wins the World Cup. It comes around every four years and it's like the entire history of warfare re-enacted with only a few hooligans getting killed. Spain v. Holland? That sounds like the Eighty Years War of 1568-1648... but for the next four years, I won't care at all. The World Cup is like short track speed skating in the Winter Olympics, only more tedious to actually watch. (Has a more entertaining sport than short track emerged recently?)

I know a high school parent whose daughter is deciding between a soccer scholarship to U. of North Carolina or to Williams. For her, life is good. Soccer in the U.S. is largely a sport of the upper middle class, by the upper middle class, and for the upper middle class. 

What I think is too bad is the Burkean organic relationship between soccer teams and their fans is being eroded, the kind that we only rarely saw in the U.S., like Larry Bird playing high school and college ball in the same John Cougar Mellencampy small town. 

It used to be that kids would start with their local soccer club like Ajax and stay there and play professionally against other Dutch soccer clubs. But now their best players get sold off to the big money leagues in bigger countries, and only reassembled for national teams.

19 comments:

daveg said...

That is one of the nice things about the Spanish team.

A large number of the Spanish players play for Spanish teams, and one team in particular - Barclona.

That is probably one of the reason they are doing so well as there is a nucleus of players that are used to playing together.

Additionally, those that don't play for Barca play against each other during he season creating at least some familiarity.

(Yes, I know that some Spanish players play in the British premier league as well.)

SFG said...

A friend of mine said that Europe now has soccer instead of wars.

jody said...

LOL. just stop writing about soccer. it's embarrassing.

Anonymous said...

1. Girls gymnastics has a similar dynamic. Significant expenses required, thus daunting for low income parents. And the elite girls have their education significantly curtailed.

2. You need to keep your panhandle at the top. C'mon, meester marketer.

691 said...

She should go to UNC. Best soccer team in the nation and no real academic falloff from Williams. Plus, it's not in the middle of nowhere

keypusher said...

LOL. just stop writing about soccer. it's embarrassing.

I strongly disagree with the "tedious to watch" bit. But it was still a quite interesting post overall.

The inefficient American system of creating soccer players (play a lot of games, try to get a college scholarship) sounds both feckless and pretty nice, compared to this high efficiency Dutch machine of nature and nurture

It would be interesting to compare the Dutch system to the following in the US (i) the extra-scholastic camp and private-team pre-HS pipeline in basketball (ii) the college recruiting machine in football. Both strike me as machines for chewing up young men, but I don't know them that well.

For me, as part of the 80% of the male population that was too short and too weak for even high school football and basketball, soccer was a wonderful thing. I assume the Dutch high schools have relatively low-pressure soccer teams too.

Anonymous said...

A phenomenon that's harder to explain is how the rest of the world has passed America in producing top tennis talent. This is another sport for the upper middle class here, and ambitious parents start children at young ages and drill them very hard. A half generation ago Agassi and Sampras were the best players in the world, but now Roddick is the only American in the top tier, and even US colleges often give their scholarships to Europeans and South Americans.

Sam said...

Here is a priest weighing in on how to improve soccer. He usually writes on spiritual issues but felt strongly enough to change topics for the World Cup

http://www.nationalpost.com/make+soccer+less+boring/3248420/story.html

Anonymous said...

------
I asked if some of what he learned at Ajax — focus, perseverance, the ability to perform under pressure — might benefit him no matter what he ends up doing. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “We’re training for football, not for anything else.”
-------

At least they are not naive enough to think that sports participation is a good proxy for "leadership" like most boneheaded US CEO's

Also, why are universities offering women's soccer scholarships? Seriously, does the university benefit AT ALL??

"sports is the opiate of the masses"

Anonymous said...

"but for the next four years, I won't care at all. The World Cup is like short track speed skating in the Winter Olympics, only more tedious to actually watch."

Not nearly as tedious as reading your bumbling attempts to "analyze" soccer every four years, Steve. Seriously, you are never going to "get it" if you only tune in once every four years to watch the World Cup.

I'm pretty sure that I find the sports you enjoy to be excruciatingly dull and tedious, Steve, but I don't waste my time trying to "understand" them. What I find perfectly galling about your once-every-four-years attempt to "understand" soccer is that you know you are out of your depth, but you still attempt to say something about the subject while making no real attempt to learn. You are only fooling yourself.

As for developing kids for soccer, the USA is slowly going to the academy model the rest of the world uses. MLS youth academies are already producing players. So kids train while going to school, and "miss out" on university - a university education is a complete waste for most kids; specialized career training (without incurring a massive student loan debt like university requires) is the better route for most kids today. How many liberal arts majors actually use what they learned in their post-graduate careers? Damned few.

The NCAA is a complete waste of time for developing soccer players, and the high schools, too. They play by oddball rules that the rest of the world does not use, and they have all kinds of restrictions that makes it hard for players to get real professional training. By the time a player is 21, if he isn't already on a successful professional soccer career path, it's too late.

Clint Dempsey came from a trailer park in Texas, now he's making a very respectable wage playing in England. Not all the USA soccer players are middle class in background, even now. Expect more working class and lower class players to balance things out in future as kids and parents realize you can make a respectable wage in soccer.

Sorry the USA can't remain fixed like it was when we were kids, Steve, but the growth in popularity of soccer in the USA is one of those changes that ain't so bad. You'll get used to it and it will certainly be the last thing any rational person should be complaining about.

Anonymous said...

"but for the next four years, I won't care at all. The World Cup is like short track speed skating in the Winter Olympics, only more tedious to actually watch."

Not nearly as tedious as reading your bumbling attempts to "analyze" soccer every four years, Steve. Seriously, you are never going to "get it" if you only tune in once every four years to watch the World Cup.

I'm pretty sure that I find the sports you enjoy to be excruciatingly dull and tedious, Steve, but I don't waste my time trying to "understand" them. What I find perfectly galling about your once-every-four-years attempt to "understand" soccer is that you know you are out of your depth, but you still attempt to say something about the subject while making no real attempt to learn. You are only fooling yourself.

As for developing kids for soccer, the USA is slowly going to the academy model the rest of the world uses. MLS youth academies are already producing players. So kids train while going to school, and "miss out" on university - a university education is a complete waste for most kids; specialized career training (without incurring a massive student loan debt like university requires) is the better route for most kids today. How many liberal arts majors actually use what they learned in their post-graduate careers? Damned few.

The NCAA is a complete waste of time for developing soccer players, and the high schools, too. They play by oddball rules that the rest of the world does not use, and they have all kinds of restrictions that makes it hard for players to get real professional training. By the time a player is 21, if he isn't already on a successful professional soccer career path, it's too late.

Clint Dempsey came from a trailer park in Texas, now he's making a very respectable wage playing in England. Not all the USA soccer players are middle class in background, even now. Expect more working class and lower class players to balance things out in future as kids and parents realize you can make a respectable wage in soccer.

Sorry the USA can't remain fixed like it was when we were kids, Steve, but the growth in popularity of soccer in the USA is one of those changes that ain't so bad. You'll get used to it and it will certainly be the last thing any rational person should be complaining about.

guest009 said...

Steve,

You should look up the press guides for sports such as Div I soccer or field hockey.

At UNC most of the soccer players are majoring in recreational sciences. Playing a sport at a big time school is a full time job and trying to major is engineering, science, or any other hard field is virtually impossbile.

Most of the athletes at Univ. of Michigan are general studies majors. What is the point going to college if you have to go back later to get a real degree.

Anonymous said...

What I found most interesting about that piece was what it implied about what helps you excel at soccer as opposed to other sports.

In virtually every sport American men play, no one takes player training all that seriously below age 13 or so (well, no one except coaches who want to take advantage of overanxious upper-middle-class parents who will pay enormous sums to give a competitive advantage to their six-year-old only child.)

The reason, obviously, is that the first requirement of athletic greatness in our sports is a freakish body bestowed only by nature (and steroids) that doesn't begin to emerge until puberty and isn't easily predictable before that. It simply does not matter how much time you've spent learning to tackle perfectly and predict offensive plays -- you'll never be a great linebacker if you're 5'10" and have a marathoner's body.

Actually, it goes beyond that. Most of our sports require enough strength that kids cannot play the properly -- under 12s cannot shoot a basketball or swing a bat properly -- so you have to unlearn in adolescence what you learned as a kid, unlearn it or be handicapped by it. Youth sports, even when very well coached, are thus more likely to hinder your chances of professional success rather than help it.

The Ajax article makes soccer appear to be the exact reverse. Whatever athletic abilities soccer requires seem to emerge earlier, allowing for better training at younger ages and handicapping those who don't get it. That said, the end of the article made clear that raw athletic talent counts for a lot because some kid who had been with the program forever got dismissed for a newcomer. (Actually, that scene sort of undermined the rest of the article for me, because if this school is so incredible, how could the guy in his late teens who had never been there displace the guy who had been at the school for like a decade?)

trey said...

Larry Bird grew up in French Lick in south-central IN and played high school ball for nearby Springs Valley. He obviously ended up playing college at Indiana State in Terre Haute in western IN on the Illinois border. It is around 100 miles from French Lick. He started off at flagship IU in Bloomington which is only about 50-60 miles from French Lick. However, ISU is vastly more hicky than IU which is probably why it was a better fit for him.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but probably of interest to the hbd crowd, a white dude just broke the 10.0 sec. barrier in the 100m dash. Christophe Lemaitre-9.98

poolside said...

Steve, the smart MLS teams are investing significant (for them) dollars in local academies that enable them to identify, develop and eventually sign home-grown talent.

MLS teams can now have up to four "home-grown" players on their rosters, with no minimum age requirement.

These first of these players are beginning to show up on the pitch, i.e. Tristan Bowan of LA, who has two goals for the Galaxy this year.

But the long-term prospects are strong, both for MLS and for the USMNT.

In Houston, the Dynamo have a tiered developmental program that includes Academy teams at both U-16 and U-18. Those players are recruited from local select clubs and they play on a national level.

The Dynamo have made it a point to chose players who otherwise might not have opportunities to play in college ... i.e., Latinos. Their Academy teams are almost exclusively Latino.

kaka said...

The World Cup is... tedious to actually watch

Why does Steve hate soccer like so many other traditional American sports fans?

I can understand. I grew up obsessed about American football. When I was first exposed to soccer abroad 20yrs ago, my sensibilities were offended by the fact that there was so little scoring, the players weren't freakishly monsturous and I initially sucked at it despite being athletic in the states.

Unlike Classical or Jazz music which I knew I was suppose to enjoy before I could, I started out hating soccer like Steve. It was instinctual based upon my cultural conditioning, and it took me a much longer time to come to soccer than more mature forms of music.

It's taken over two decades in part because soccer exposes the extremely narrow assumptions American mega-sports make about athleticism: meticulously choreographed short bursts of high energy (NFL) and genetic freaks on display (NBA-showcase the least awkward and lumbering of human giants).

One cannot come to truly appreciate soccer without understanding the athleticism and skills involved. This understanding in turn exposes American mega-sports for the highly artificial bang-bang construct they have evolved to become (esp NFL).

It also raises the question of what is athleticism. Logically, it seems this should be sports that are most tied to skills for basic fighting and survival. Who would you rather have in your tribe 2,000 years ago or besides you in a Vietnamese jungle or Afganistan mountain - a top NFL linebacker/NBA center or a champion boxer/world class decathalon athlete?

However, fundamental human athleticism tied to fighting and survival are uncomprehensible to the masses of veal our modern world has made of men (esp Western and white). Such sports are also insufficiently visually stimulating for spectators accustomed to fantasy FX Hollywood movies or video games.

Thus, the American genius for turning a buck turned sports into entertainment and redefined athleticism from primarily survival/fighting skills to highlight clips of short busts of activities like jumping or sprinting by staging them in totally artificial settings.

The UFC is undergoing this transformation now. It was more realistic 10yrs ago, but considered boring and too violent. The rules have been changing to make it more visually appealing to the masses who cannot understand the fundamental skills involved.

Although I have no interest in the NBA I still enjoy the NFL for the elaborate show they put on and the particular talents players have. In that sense, soccer is a threat to mega-American sports and their fans (in addition to being tarred as the sport of liberals, SWPLs and globalist).

Sam said...

http://www.nationalpost.com/make+soccer+less+boring/3248420/story.html

Anonymous said...

Having been recruited for football by Williams, I don’t recall the school offering athletic scholarships per New England Small College Athletic Conference regulations. UNC is probably the less expensive choice then. However, there’s nothing to stop them from padding your “need-based” financial aid once you pass the academic admit.

Looking back, were I aware that undergrad was to be more of a social exercise than an academic experience, I would have chosen to attend Williams.