Give talent time and space

Give talent time and space

Give talent time and space

Classy: AC Milan’s Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato is an example of wonderful natural talent expressing itself at the top level. AFP

China has just announced a five-year plan to round up 500 youngsters and send them abroad, especially to Spain, for soccer training. The United States has just chosen Claudio Reyna, its finest soccer export of all time, as its national youth technical director.

India, bewitched and currently bothered by cricket, has wondered for years how to get into the global fascination with soccer.

Everybody’s doing it. Everybody’s trying to find the next Lionel Messi.
Imagine the changing demography of the sport if these three giants, who account for half the population on earth, can each develop a “golden generation.”

If sports can be learned, as opposed to talents just emerging where they will, then you would not bet against one or all of these countries becoming a force in the global game of the near future.

China’s new soccer chief, hired ostensibly to sweep betting corruption out of the sport in the country, appears to think that throwing numbers at the youth development holds the key. Rather like the old East German system, and like the Chinese success at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the system depends on recruiting and training kids by the hundreds, promoting the best and discarding the rest.

The head of the Chinese Football Association, Wei Di, might have been well advised in targeting Spanish clubs to foster his would-be world greats. Spain, and not just FC Barcelona, has a proven record of youth soccer — as we are most likely about to witness at the 2010 World Cup.

And Chinese players, the Chinese association points out, have similar body types to the Spaniards Xavi Hernández, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and many more nurtured at Barcelona.

Messi is different because he arrived from Argentina at Barcelona’s now world-renowned academy, La Masia, when he was 13. The wonder of Messi was spotted by his father, Jorge, when the child was barely out of the cradle, and he went on to be loved by his local team, Newell’s Old Boys, which opened the doors of its somewhat more basic youth training to Messi when he was only 6.

But thankfully the part-time trainers there — a physical therapist, a garage mechanic, a manager of a packing factory — knew one most precious thing about the child.

“He wasn’t trained, he was born like this,” Ernesto Vecchio, the garage mechanic, says in a documentary, “Los Origenes de Messi,” that traces the roots of the world’s most beguiling soccer talent.

Watch that documentary, by Michael Robinson, and marvel at the humility of everyone around Messi, from his parents to his mentors.

Essentially, they knew what he was capable of becoming, and they knew that the best they could do was simply let it develop — on the streets, in the parks, on the dusty courtyard where he and the ball were inseparable.

One is reminded of a book, published in 1970 and now long out of print, by Nils Middelboe, a Danish merchant banker who played as an amateur for Chelsea in 1913. The last lines of that little book, “Common Sense about Soccer,” are unforgettable.
He used the phrase “to systematize is to sterilize” in imploring coaches not to overload kids with theories, not to spoil their joy in letting imagination guide them with the ball. Even then, back in the 1950s and 1960s, Middelboe feared the regimentation of adults’ inflicting their control on kids.

We see them on every sideline, from the premier leagues of top soccer nations down to the school fields of kids’ games: unimaginative old-timers bawling out players for the crime of doing what comes naturally rather than what is ordered.

China’s plan is said to be to embed a contingent of youths from 15 to 17 years old into the structures of top European clubs. In the United States, they know that is far too late in life. Sunil Gulati, the US Soccer Federation president, who hired Reyna this month, is thinking younger, much younger. He has asked Reyna to start with what the federation calls Zone 1, the formative years from ages 6 to 12.

Reyna, like Messi, draws on Argentina as the source of his gift and his game. His father, Miguel, moved from there to New Jersey before Reyna was born and enrolled him in St Benedict’s Preparatory School, whose soccer program has produced two of the finest players of Hispanic origin in American soccer history: Tab Ramos and Reyna.

Indeed, there might be another legacy growing, because before the federation signed him up, Reyna had started his own foundation, intent on providing soccer training to underprivileged kids.

His idea, the idea that motivated Middelboe to write a book, is to pass on the knowledge gleaned in Reyna’s case from a playing career in England, Germany and Scotland, and in his final season in New York. And the federation sees him as an example for the new generation, based on his record of leadership through 112 caps for the US national team.

The direction China and the United States take — and that India contemplates — can alter the future of the world game. Or it can repeat the same old mistakes, by going down the same roads of indoctrination that have made soccer exactly what Middelboe feared it would be: too structured and too systematic.

England, where Middelboe played for love and refused the money, helped spread the sport around the world a century ago. But the English obsession with telling everyone how to play, how to structure the lines of the game, has been successful only once, in 1966, at World Cup level, and has been found wanting elsewhere.

Why else would England’s leading clubs, like those of other European leagues, spend millions scouring South America and Africa for raw talents to inject some wonder, some imagination, into their teams?

If Middelboe were still alive, he would be drawn to the evidence that nobody but Messi himself, nothing more than the street games, made him.

He might question whether China will gain anything more from Spain than it did from sending a handful of youths to live and train in Brazil, never to be heard of again.
And he might think that Reyna, as close a thing to a free spirit as there has been in the US national squad, has a battle ahead if he decides to loosen up the coaching curriculum in the United States.