Players, Lives, and ‘A Beautiful Game’

The US Cover

“What makes a player?”  Answers to this question, here quoted from Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger’s foreword to the newish book A Beautiful Game, are plentiful in world football.  We debate the right age to go pro, the role of intensive youth academies, shifting population demographics, the dangers and benefits of increasing professionalization, and more in hopes of figuring out how to best tap the potential of millions of children playing the game with unstructured joy.

So how does Wenger, a man at the helm of a club with the types of resources and networks most around the world can only dream of, respond to his own question?  By focusing on an emotional attachment: “What makes a player?  Skill, of course.  And athleticism.  Intelligence, commitment, humility, courage and desire as well.  What makes a top player?  All those things and one thing more: the greatest players – whatever their backgrounds, whatever journey they have made – all love football with the same intensity as they did when they were little boys.  They love the game and maybe that, more than anything, is what makes us happy when we watch them play.”

With all due respect to Mr. Wenger, and while appreciating that his response is from a worthwhile book intended to inspire rather than deconstruct, the evidence for his claim is lacking.  From the 41 stories of players from 41 countries collected in the book for which Wenger was providing a foreword, it seems obvious that the actual ingredients that go into a ‘top player’ are more complicated—and more interesting—than just loving the game.

In fact, once a player gets to the top it is not clear love matters much anymore.  Take what one of Wenger’s own former players, Brazilian Gilberto Silva, says when telling his own story in A Beautiful Game: “At 16, the simple joy of the game had finished. And the job had begun.”  Or take the way Finn Toni Kallio reflects back from his current life as a pro: “Football, I guess, is different for me now.  I’m not excited about it, maybe, like I was when I was a little boy going to watch my uncle play.  I don’t go along to training with a big smile on my face every day: you have good days and bad days.  Back when we were kids, there was no stress, no responsibility.  We were just having fun.  Now, football’s my job.”

There are, of course, top professionals who still love the game with a youthful passion, and many such stories are included in A Beautiful Game.  But part of the intrigue of having these diverse stories together is a recognition: while becoming a top player does necessarily start with the naïve yet elegant joy that is the best part of childhood, from that point forward the game can work in many different ways.

The Book

A Beautiful Game, which was released this month in the US with the sub-title ‘The World’s Greatest Players and How Soccer Changed Their Lives’ after having been released last year in UK with sub-title ‘Football Through the Eyes of the World’s Greatest Players,’ is a noble effort to relate the joy of the game.  Put together by English actor, writer, and broadcaster Tom Watt, with a portion of proceeds going to UNICEF, the book’s 41 stories (mostly from players who had recently plied their trade in England—understandably for the sake of access) relate players’ childhood experiences with the game in several pages of unbroken narrative.  Eschewing references to the details of the players’ professional careers and international success, and interspersing glossy pictures of the game in all its guises, the book seems mostly geared towards an audience of fathers and sons.

For me, however, A Beautiful Game also offers an interesting data set: a rare chance to consider the question of what makes a player from the perspectives of the players themselves.  Reading the book highlighted for me that while I’ve seen many ‘experts’ analyze, criticize, and proselytize their ideas about player development, I’ve rarely seen efforts to get perspectives from the guys who end up on the field.  We seem to know a lot about the mechanisms of player development, but we know a lot less about the phenomenology.  And if there is one thing players know beyond their embodied understanding of the game, one thing that might allow them an off-field escape from sports clichés and uneducated analysis, it is their own experience.

The UK Cover

So one of the reasons I appreciate A Beautiful Game is that the stories remind me of my “real job” teaching lifespan development: the players’ accounts are the types of life-story narratives that make for the richest data we have about lives.  Which also meant that I couldn’t stop myself from doing some of the things that I do as an academic; I couldn’t stop myself from counting, categorizing, and critiquing.

In that vein, I was pleased to find that the players’ stories in A Beautiful Game mostly avoided proscribing trite ‘life skills’ such as teamwork, or discipline, or self-esteem as keys to success.  At some level those things certainly matter, but they are rarely what make the difference for the fortunate few who make it to the elite levels of the game.  In fact, on several of the few occasions where the players talk about what the game taught them the lessons are about failure rather than success—I found Artur Boruc’s Eastern European fatalism particularly amusing: “You learn things from playing the game.  Maybe the most important is that it teaches you how to lose.  We have a saying in Poland: ‘One minute you’re driving the car, the next you’re underneath it.’”

Instead of highlighting life lessons, the book focuses primarily on falling in love with the game—on the game as a source of joy and an outlet for passion.  But in doing so the stories also highlight the diverse ways that love happens.

In discussions about US player development, for example, most contemporary emphasis is on professionalizing youth soccer: we are dismissing the traditional American combination of sports and school in favor of promoting private academies and professional contracts.  We seem focused on extending the youth reach of MLS teams, standardizing coaching, and organizing elite clubs, while often ignoring ways of getting kids to play the game for fun—ignoring the importance of city parks, recreation centers, public schools.  Yet one of the striking things about the stories in A Beautiful Game is how many of the players learned the game by just having opportunities to play for fun.

As an example, one of my favorite stories in the book (along with those of Fabio Cannavaro and Mahamadou Diarra) was from Dutchman Robert van Persie.  In explaining how he came to the game he says little about Holland’s renowned coaching system and much about “The Cage” – a Rotterdam city “playground set up for football, surrounded by nets so the ball would stay inside it.  The size of the pitch was perfect for us – 25 metres from goal to goal – and it was really central, so people could come from all the neighbourhoods around to join in.  I played there almost every single day.  Almost all my friends were boys I met at The Cage: friends from around the world.  Rotterdam is a port city so people have come from everywhere.  I had friends from Holland; friends whose families came from Morocco, from Turkey, from Surinam, from the Cape Verde Islands.”

Even after he had been incorporated into a local club’s youth program, van Persie went back to The Cage on his own to play with the type of inspiration that no professional system could provide—like many great players, he had both passion and opportunity.  In fact, by my count well over half the elite players in A Beautiful Game attributed their success more to opportunities to play informally than to their formal connections to clubs and professional systems.

Of course, many of the players learned the game through combinations of both formal and informal play—a mix eloquently described by Mexico’s Claudio Saurez when reminiscing about the wisdom of a coach who “told us that the secret was to go out and play a cascaritas [an informal street game], but do it seriously!  That would be the ideal: to have fun playing at the same time as being able to shoulder the responsibilities.”  And that is something I suspect American players need much more than further professionalization.

The Paths

It is also worth noting that the patterns of players developing through formal or informal channels did not always fit with stereotypes.  While we tend to think of Africa, for example, as an icon of informal player development—the barefoot street urchin discovered by the benevolent talent scout—in his story Côte d’Ivoire’s Emmanuel Eboué describes a decidedly formal upbringing with his Dad (a former footballer himself) dropping him off daily at a small Abidjan youth club for practice, even before moving up to the famous ASEC youth academy.  In France, in contrast, Franck Ribéry describes no involvement with “organized football” until age 12—despite the fact that his country is often identified as a model of professionalized youth academies,.

Similarly, while many of the players in A Beautiful Game describe an exclusive focus on soccer as their only childhood passion a nearly equal number describe having had diverse interests—from school, to other sports, to jobs.  Some of the more interesting examples include Artur Boruc, who describes having “passed exams in Polish dancing,” Norway’s Morten Gamst Pedersen, who grew up above the Arctic Circle “doing handball, ice hockey, gymnastics, orienteering, skiing,” and Brazil’s Gilberto Silva, who spent his early adolescence as an “apprentice upholsterer” and his late teen years out of the game working at a candy factory.  Based on the evidence here, early specialization is by no means a requirement for later elite performance.

So what are the requirements?  Silva, another of my favorite narratives in the book, points out the near impossibility of answering that question: “When I look back to where I came from and think about where I am now: how could I have imagined what would happen to me?  How could I have imagined I would become a World Cup winner?  How can I explain it now?  I had people who put the right situations in front of me; I was lucky: I got a second chance and I took it.”

Those last bits—opportune situations sprinkled with bits of luck—seem to me worth highlighting if only for how rarely they are part of our discussions about what makes a player.  Take, for example, the pattern I found most surprising in the player narratives: the nearly 60% of players whose success could be at least partially attributed to the fact that a father, grandfather, or uncle was a high level player, coach, or administrator.

Considering how few adult males in the general population are high-level footballers, the fact that well-over half of the 41 elite players in A Beautiful Game had at least one of those as a mentor seems significant in several ways.  First, it points out the genetic luck necessary for having the physical characteristics to be a top level athlete.   Tomáš Rosický, for example, did not just work harder than all the other kids in Prague, he was blessed with a combination of quickness, balance, and grace that I suspect had also helped his father get a chance at Sparta Prague.

Second, the prominence of having relatives in the game probably says something about the importance of networks in making opportunities.  Taking nothing away from their long journeys and intense commitment, it seems plausible that Blackburn’s Ryan Nelson mightn’t have been one of the few New Zealanders to play in the Premier League had his grandfather not been a Kiwi national team coach, or that Kanu mightn’t have ever left Igboland if his father were not a one-time chairman of Nigerian club Spartans (now Heartland F.C.).  These were not instances of nepotism, but more abstract examples of what sociologists would call social capital—having the connections and the know-how to negotiate complex systems in ways that maximize opportunities.

Third, even beyond fathers and grandfathers, it is notable how many of the players in A Beautiful Game identify the people immediately around them as their role models and their inspiration.  When the players in A Beautiful Game discuss people that most influenced them, many start by giving cursory credit to global stars: a memory of watching Maradona in his prime, or having brief obsessions with Real Madrid.  But mostly those mentions give way to much more heartfelt memories of challenging an older brother in ongoing yard games, of the local coach who first made soccer meaningful, or of the mom who lovingly tolerated an endless supply of muddy laundry.

Many of the players note that they now think of themselves as role models, perhaps failing to appreciate the lessons of their own stories: the actual influence of sports celebrities on our daily lives is nothing compared to the importance of our tangible community.  None other than today’s ultimate icon Lionel Messi, for example, gives the obligatory Argentine credit to Maradona before noting: “there wasn’t anybody who was an idol for me as a boy.  I grew up with my brother and my cousins.”  But it may be Ribery who said it best: “I wasn’t a great one for having heroes, you know.  I certainly didn’t spend my childhood glued to the telly: I was too busy outdoors with my mates, playing football and having a laugh.”

In the US much has been made of the importance of having a visible professional league for the future of the game, often based on the assumption that kids will look to the pros to learn how it is done.  But one of the conclusions I draw from using A Beautiful Game as data is that there is no one way for it to be done: you cannot look at the finished player and design a system to produce more.   Instead, if you start by looking at the young player you realize how easy it would have been for things to be different—how much was about the child having the luck, the help, and the opportunity to successfully negotiate whatever system they found themselves in.

So what makes a player?  Wenger’s response that they “love the game” may indeed be a good starting point, but the real answer is almost certainly about something more.  Something that may actually be embedded in the types of stories told by A Beautiful Game—stories that are less about top-down youth development schemes and professionalized club systems and more about the realities of young lives.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

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