Silly, but true. I had difficulty falling asleep last night after watching Trinidad and Tobago’s mighty Soca Warriors eliminate the United States of America from the 2018 World Cup. Another mouse roars. I tell myself it’s ‘just a game,’ but the reality is that in our country of 320 million people, we have turned the game into a bazillion dollar business. We get upset when the results don’t favor us – like last night’s 2-1 embarrassment against a country with a population of 1.3 million – but in the final analysis, the business will continue to flourish, perhaps with less enthusiasm from the millions of young Americans it fleeces, but it will go on.
As the Soca Warriors dismantled the U.S. team before a sparse crowd, superstar Lionel Messi secured Argentina’s ticket to the 2018 World Cup in Russia by scoring a hat trick in a must win game. That’s what great players do. They make other players better, and when all else fails, they put their teams on their backs and carry them across the finish line. No U.S. player had the will, much less the skill to do that last night against a team that had won only a single game through the 10-game hexagonal qualification round.
A Lesson from Argentina
I first visited Argentina in 1990. When I returned to the States, I told my soccer friends that I know why Argentina ‘has been, is and will continue to be superior to the United States’ on the soccer fields of the world. On the first evening in Argentina as my business friends and I returned to Buenos Aries from Campo de Mayo, I couldn’t help but notice that every available space visible from our vehicle was occupied by people – young and old – playing soccer, few with good equipment, but everyone was playing, and even the small fields with sticks as goals and rags as a ball were surrounded by cheering spectators.
A year or so ago, I attended a ‘think tank’ meeting with a group of people to discuss the soccer program the organization was operating in a foreign country. I made the statement that the children we worked with needed to play more games. “They ‘train’ three days each week, but never play games,” I commented and then added the well-worn adage I grew up with, “The game teaches itself.” One of the ‘lead’ people in the meeting smugly remarked, “If that was true, Africa would win the World Cup every four years.” I let the comment pass, but in my mind, I thought, “If training, equipment and money is what it takes, the United States would be hands down winners.” I will stick to what I learned early in my playing and coaching career: the game teaches itself.
We Once Played as Kids
In America, children no longer know how to play. As a young boy growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, I spent most of my time outdoors. When we didn’t have enough kids for a baseball game, we played Roly Poly. We played one-on-one basketball on rusted rims with tattered nets until enough kids showed up to play 5v5. We lived at Clapp Park or on the field next to our house, always playing something, always active. We played in the winter and we played in the summer. Nothing kept us inactive and indoors. We learned about life by playing games with each other. I thank God that my own children grew up in a neighborhood full of active kids. They were always outside playing. They destroyed the gutters on the house with errant shots at the makeshift goal on the side of the house, and they killed the grass. Their level of talent was inconsequential. Everyone played. They learned how to win and they learned how to lose, and they learned to do it with respect for one another.
Not more than 300 yards down the street from my house in River Falls is a beautiful soccer complex. Sadly, it is only used for scheduled games and practices. Kids lack the initiative and desire to organize their own games, so the fields are most often empty save for dog walkers, geese, wild turkeys and deer who find their ways to the pitch. Adults have made children dependent upon them to set up a game or practice and it most often comes with a price tag. There are plenty of kids in my neighborhood. I know this not because I see them outdoors doing things and playing with each other, but because every morning and every afternoon, several school busses make their way to the top of the hill and back. I peer into the bus windows to verify that kids actually occupy the seats. They do with their heads most often buried in a ‘smart’phone – there’s a misnomer – screen or other video device.
Who’s to Blame?
Fingers will be pointed and people will be blamed for last night’s debacle in Trinidad and Tobago. How sad. The result is merely a reflection of America’s materialistic and arrogant society. When I was a kid, we didn’t ‘pay to play.’ We played because it was fun, not for notoriety or a college scholarship. Playing basketball taught me how to play basketball. It seems that today, young people can only learn from practicing drills. Too many adult-supervised drills and practice … too little chip up games in the neighborhood.
We need to encourage our children to move away from the video screens and into the neighborhood fields and parks where they will teach themselves and learn the lessons that sport and activity has made available for kids at no cost since man took his first step.
Yes, I am very disappointed that the United States will not participate in the next World Cup. I am more disturbed that we will spend zillions trying to figure out what happened and how to insure it doesn’t happen again rather than following the lead of the kids in Argentina, Honduras … who are content to let the game teach them how best to play it. Young Pele learned to play the game with his friends in the streets.