August 10, 2010
Let Young Talent Blossom by Rob Hughes
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 F.C. 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.
Check back next week for the conclusion of this great article.