During the Holocaust, half of my Dad's side of the family escaped from Germany to Shanghai, China, where they lived for 8 years before emigrating to Pittsburgh. The other half of my Dad's family fled from Germany to Bolivia, and eventually to Sao Paulo, Brazil where they live to this day.
I was only 12 years old when my Brazilian uncles and cousins came to America and I received my first Corinthians and Brazilian national team jerseys. Enchanting stories of Pele, the King of Football, and other stars like Socrates, Zico, and Jairzinho piqued my interest in the land of Brazil and the way they approached their futebol.
Shortly after I was turned on to the movie Hotshot about a rich New Yorker with a temper who was trying out for the New York Cosmos. After failing to make the team, he packed his bags and headed to Brazil to train mano y mano with Pele, Karate Kid style. With Pele in a similar role as Mr. Miyagi with all the wisdom and secret training methods, humble and improved Jimmy heads back to the Cosmos a changed man and the movie ends gloriously with Pele (just like Miyagi) in tears when his disciple honors the master's teachings. Instead of the crane kick substitute the bicycle kick.
Now I'm no psychologist, but I think those experiences were the roots of my desire to experience soccer the way the rest of the world did. Eventually I did travel to Brazil and had invaluable experiences playing pick up games and training with various teams including professional club Vasco Da Gama. The sense of joy and creativity the players had in Brazil was evident immediately.
I recently returned from Panama and Columbia where I spent roughly 10 days traveling around various parts of the two countries. Futsal courts are EVERYWHERE. Instead of 5 on 5 pick up basketball, it is 5 on 5 pick up soccer. The average level of technical skill is high and creativity seems to be worth as much, if not more so than scoring goals. With losers sitting out the next game, marking is tight and tackles are hard - slide tackles on cement, hard. The perfect balance of pressure and freedom.
How much pick up soccer or free play do you see in America? I don't see much in Los Angeles, other than some games at the park now and then which are mostly adults too old to be vying for a spot on Klinsman's roster. Some futsal centers are opening up which is good, but they are often coached and practically always with parents watching (and commenting) from the sidelines. In fact, there is a small sided youth league in San Pedro, CA that makes the claim that it doesn't allow coaching from the sidelines, yet practically every coach I have seen is doing just that, coaching.
Letting the kids play in a planned practice is not the same either, because like I said above, coaches almost always have to have their say. Even when they don't the kids want to impress the coach which often translates to "keeping the ball" which for a young kid can mean "not losing the ball". If creativity is reduced, so is the technical ability since the feet will only do what the brain allows them to try.
I know a handful coaches who I grew up playing with or against who "get it" and are starting to encourage kids to have fun, take risks, and be creative. I think the USA is headed in the right direction in a lot of ways, but coaches and parents, like many people in life, want control. Control over the skill development of players. Control over the tactics. Control the touches a player takes. Control over the practice scheduling. Control, control, control. Uncertainty is scary, but so necessary.
The lives of American children seem either too structured or not structured enough. Pick up soccer is a middle ground activity. Neighborhoods where kids get together in the street and play are less and less (and when they do its probably not soccer). More often than not, time spent is either in the house on technology or school work, or out of the house for a structured activity like soccer practice. In other countries kids still play, and often, it is soccer.
Below are some quotes about pick up soccer, but what do they know?
"Everything I have achieved in football is due to playing football in the
streets with my friends"
"Young players need freedom of expression to develop as creative
players…they should be encouraged to try skills without fear of failure."
"I must admit that football in the streets gave us a great sense of
freedom and liberty."
"I go out and play with imagination. It comes naturally to me. That’s how
everybody plays in London
when your playing street football."
"I am not sure about the academy system most clubs have – what is the
point of trying to discipline a seven year old? You have to let them find their
own game. I never changed my game – people have to do what they feel
"The kid’s game, chaotic as it is, is still the surest way of nuturing
Paul Gardner (football journalist on street football)