Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Whose Future?

I recently finished reading an excellent story in The New York Times Magazine that ran right before the World Cup and it started me thinking about my post last month about my summer camp experiences and how "growing up" has changed in the past generation.

The article "How a Soccer Star Is Made" by Michael Sokolove is about the youth academy of the famous Dutch club Ajax.  Ajax is historically the most successful club in the Dutch Eredivisie (Premier League) and was in the past a force in European competitions, particularly in the 1970's when it won the UEFA Champions League three straight years. As free agency and well-heeled investors crept into the game in the 1980's and '90's, Ajax found difficulty competing with the best in Europe, continuing to rely on home-grown talent for the most part.  

Ajax now seems content to do well in its domestic league and provide a pipeline for talented Dutch players to the richest clubs and owners in England, Italy, Spain, and Germany. It does so at a considerable financial benefit. Player transactions in professional soccer almost never occur via a "trade" as is the norm in American football, baseball, and basketball. Rather, players switch clubs almost exclusively via a "transfer"in which one club pays another for the rights to a player. Instead of chasing trophies Ajax is now, as Sokolove puts it, a "talent factory."

And a successful factory it is. Ajax signed and developed Wesley Sneijder, the midfield general for The Netherlands in the recent World Cup. After five season with the club he was sold to Real Madrid for a reported 27 million Euros. At least two other starters on Holland's team started out as Ajax youth players and were sold on to "bigger" clubs. One club official estimated in the article that Ajax earned 80 million Euros from five players currently playing for other clubs in Europe.

The industrial analogy seems particularly apt after reading about the academy and how it works. Every year the players go through rigorous testing and analysis, starting at age 7. Some players are "sent away" because of a lack of skill, motivation, or discipline. And while concessions are made for family and studies, particularly at younger ages, there is no doubt what the sole focus of De Toekomst "(The Future") is -- developing elite soccer players. When Sokolove asked one 15-year-old member of the academy if he was learning lessons -- focus, perseverance, poise under pressure -- that he could apply regardless of what vocation he undertakes in life the answer was simple: "No, we're training for football, not for anything else."

The article makes the point, as many have done in the past, that if America ever hopes to be a truly elite soccer nation, it needs to train players, if not quite as obsessively as Ajax, at least a lot more like it than the current system of youth teams (which focus on winning rather than developing elite talent) and college soccer (which is entirely unique to the States as far as the quality of play and its use as a training grounds for the pros).

This is a legitimate point, and one that needs to be a continual part of the debate regarding the youth soccer system in the United States. As a parent, though, I couldn't help but reflect on the comparison between the Ajax system and my recent bemoaning of sending our son and daughter to soccer camps during summers past rather than to regular "summer camps" (although my daughter did point out that they went to church camp for a few summers and got to shoot archery there).

While I may regret that our kids missed out on some experiences growing up, one of my regrets is not that they weren't in the youth system of a soccer club. Admittedly, they probably weren't talented enough to be considered in the first place.  But as successful as Ajax program is, for every player that makes it to the first team there are scores that return home at some point and are forced to try to use the lessons learned solely for football and apply them to some other vocation.

I understand chasing the dream of the ridiculous wealth that a contract with an elite club in Europe can bring. But the odds certainly aren't with you, and you have to wonder how many kids have grown up thinking only about being a professional soccer player when they should have been concentrating instead on a professional or vocational career because they just lacked that one step.

American soccer would likely benefit if we put players into youth systems at a younger age.  Certainly, we have started to figure out how to offer the opportunity to players (starting perhaps at 15 or 16) to train primarily for a career in soccer (some if not all MLS clubs have youth programs now and "Generation adidas" is supposed to provide income and opportunity to players who either don't want to attend college or want to leave early) and need to continue along that path.

As a parent though I would be very reluctant to want my child to be pulled away from a college education for the chance of a professional career unless I was dead certain that he or she was going to have a successful pro career. It seems an awfully big risk to take.

Maybe sending our kids to soccer camp when they were growing up wasn't such a bad decision after all . . . 

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