Terrific article from the NYT magazine showed up in my Google Reader inbox today. A must-reed for soccer fans on the Ajax youth training center, which has exported guys like Sneijder and Van der Vaart to rich European clubs.
The article rightly notes that formerly storied teams like Ajax now simply content themselves (or are forced to) sell their best players to richer clubs (But even if a team has tons of cash, if it sells all of its players and thus doesn't win much, then what's the point?). The author calls this phenomenon a result of globalization, which I think is a bit too easy and simplistic, but it definitely shows the sad state of World club soccer, which resembles the MLB much more than more financially egalitarian leagues like the NFL.
The most interesting aspect of the article is what it shows about how youth are groomed. The heartless training system rewards only the cream of the crop (who will go on to riches later on in life), while those who are not good enough to make it all the way to the top are jettisoned along the way.
In an article that draws a bit on differences between Dutch and American soccer development systems, I'm going to take the liberty to use my experiences in French school to draw some comparisons between how kids grow up in Europe and in the U.S.
The fact that a talented young Dutch soccer player will basically stop seriously trying in school to pursue a soccer career when he could eventually not be good enough to earn even a liveable wage in semi-pro leagues is a depressing reality. But it's not just like that in soccer.
Spare my generalizations, but European education forces teenagers (and even pre-teens) to decide what type of career they are going to have early on by what kind of subjects they concentrate on, and even what kind of school they go to (Regular high school for the smartest, and various trade and professional schools for those who are not cut for academics).
Besides the fact that this places a lot of pressure on kids from a young age and rewards those who develop intellectually from a young age, it also means that if a kid eventually realizes they don't like, aren't cut out for, or aren't good enough for what they are doing, they are basically fucked.
And without a good education, what is a former soccer prodigy going to do in life?
My friends in France were always surprised that I didn't have a major in high school (or even up until my junior year) as if going on in general studies was a waste. But I see it more as a way to keep opportunities open instead of on one subject.
Granted the European way of being essentially trained to be a plumber early on might make it easier to get a job, but the American system is much more forgiving, and in the sports arena, it does provide elite athletes with an education they would not receive in Europe (Although people familiar with competitive collegiate athletics might disagree with that).
So here is the question both in soccer and in life: Is it better to have kids focus on a certain career from a young age in the hopes that this gives them a better chance of eventual success, or is it better to leave their options open, as is done, in principle, both on and off the field in U.S.
The NYT article suggests that college educations for top soccer players in the U.S. will inevitably restrict the competitiveness of U.S. soccer teams and players. Instead, maybe a Dutch system is necessary for the U.S. to compete on the global soccer state (Although the author does a good job at criticizing the ruthless soccer factory at Ajax).
But at what cost?