I had an interesting online interaction the other day in regard to the World Cup. I know ... *another* soccer column. Anyway, there seems to be this narrative developing in certain circles that the …
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I had an interesting online interaction the other day in regard to the World Cup.
I know ... *another* soccer column.
Anyway, there seems to be this narrative developing in certain circles that the French victory in Copa Mundial (soccer term! ... ish) is a tribute to the value of immigration. This, of course, based on the fact that five of the French starting eleven were immigrants or children of immigrants, as were large parts of the English and Belgian teams.
In fact, immigrants from the region around Paris know as “Ile de France” (sounds a lot better than saying “the slums,” dontcha think?) account for two out of every three professional soccer players from France, though the region only accounts for about 20 percent of the French population. This region is also known as “The 93,” which is shorthand for Department 93 of the French government’s 100 regions, which is a dense concentration of the poorest neighborhoods in all of France, a Department which receives special government funding due to its economic distress.
For me, those facts turn the discussion of the French success away from being one about immigration policy, and towards one of my oldest hobby horses: youth sports. My son plays competitive soccer, and, without giving you the details, I will tell you it is expensive. I have nieces who played competitive softball, and I can tell you it, too, is expensive. A buddy of mine has a child playing youth basketball — expensive. Youth football? Expensive. And don’t ever look into youth hockey if you don’t want to have a small stroke.
My point with this is that, were all those immigrants, who are condensed into the poorest neighborhoods around Paris, in America, instead, they would not appreciably improve the American soccer product, because they would not be able to afford to play for the competitive club teams. And, the way the culture of youth sports has developed, that probably means that they would not get to play for their high school teams, because many (not all) of the high schools work closely with the clubs to find their teams. It is so bad that, at one local high school, kids as early as age 10 know that if they aren’t on the “right” youth basketball team, they have almost zero chance of ever playing varsity basketball. Parents (including us) are starting to look at open enrollment for high school based on whether their kids are going to get a real chance to play.
We have created an industry around youth sports, but, unlike other industries America created, it is one that is not working. The US Men’s National Soccer Team failed to even qualify for the Copa, for Pete’s sake! All these kids, with all these parents, shelling out all these bucks, and we can’t even manage to field the 32nd best soccer club in the world. And this is true of other sports, as well, with the notable exception of women’s sports.
But, in the end, it isn’t about winning, or beating up on the rest of the world. It’s actually just about the love of sport. Kids in the slums of Paris play great soccer because, if there’s one kid in the whole neighborhood who has a ball, they have a game, and they play for hours and hours every day. Without coaches. For the love of the game. Yes, eventually they find their ways into state-subsidized soccer “schools” where they become professionals, but that’s after they’ve already learned the game. Kids in America are being turned into cogs in an industry. Nobody plays for the love of it. When was the last time you saw a neighborhood park populated by kids playing a “pick up” game?
Congratulations to the French. Maybe there is something we can learn from them. How about let’s start letting kids learn on their own for a while, for the Love of the Game.
Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His novels are available at MichaelJAlcorn.com. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.
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