This afternoon, I went along to watch a game of another coach on the course. Just a short walk from the RCD Espanyol stadium, I couldn't help but admire the setting for such a game. Clear blue skies, temperature in the mid twenties, and a rooftop bar that peers over the pitch. Wow! It got me thinking about some of the sights in Missouri, and naturally I began to draw comparisons between the two footballing cultures. On my own personal Twitter, I began rambling aloud to anyone who would be bothered to read my nonsense. And then it turned into a thread which got a fair bit of reaction. So I thought I'd turn it into this article to be able to share with a wider audience.
On the official BFCN Twitter account, I asked; "Are these great locations, or is it that the sun makes everything look better?"
This was a game between Fontsanta Fatjo (blue) and Llerona (yellow). Both teams are from here in Barcelona, and compete in (what translates to) the Young Women's Premier Division - Group 2. Which I think means they're just below the absolute top league in Barcelona. The teams were supposedly U19, but within that encompasses anything from maybe fifteen or sixteen years-old upwards.
My thread started like this, with a quote tweet; "This reminds me of the setup at Missouri Rush or STLFC. Apart from it's way more accessible here. Municipality funded or supported facilities, operated by clubs that participate in open systems. No money grab conglomerates in sight." For those who don't know what I'm talking about, I'll include pictures. Below is the Missouri Rush Soccer Complex.
Four state of the art 4G astroturf pitches, marked for 11v11, 9v9, and 7v7. Used weeknights for training, and on weekends it hosts games from eight in the morning, often finishing around ten or eleven at night. It is home to a restaurant, rooftop bar, drinks and snacks stands, offices, sand volleyball courts, ample parking, and is adjacent to a large cinema. Sounds great, right? Well, to me, it always felt soulless. I'll get to why once I'm done drawing comparisons, and have successfully painted this picture for the readers.
The pitches are encompassed by deck-chaired screaming parents, providing the usual gems we hear from sidelines the world over, living vicariously through their kids, as their own youth slowly fades into middle-aged obscurity, and with it, the hopes and dreams they once had. Missing out on their own dreams, they channel their efforts into their offspring, acting like cheerleaders at best, agents at worst. Rush are one of the cheaper soccer providers in the area, such is the benefit of economies of scale. They are backed by a large, global corporation, and have clubs all over the US and in several other countries too. Each age group can have anywhere between six and ten teams (it declines to maybe three or four when the kids get to high school age). They make a huge amount of money renting out their fields on weekends to the local youth league for games.
I'm trying to avoid the word "club" because I don't think that word applies very much to American teams. There might be "club" in the name, but really, they're a collection of teams that wear the same kit. The shared identity between those teams ends there. No philosophy, no community spirit, just hundreds and thousands of kids all in the same shirt. Even though Rush are slightly cheaper, families are still paying thousands of dollars. Especially when you factor in kit, travel, out of state tournaments, on top of your club soccer fees. This is already extremely discriminatory, as the large costs mean that certain demographics can't afford the fees. Exactly the same as how big Premier League teams raise ticket prices. Only the middle class and tourists can afford to go, unless people are neglecting other areas of their life to pay to attend PL matches. And like most things in America, the Missouri Rush Soccer Complex is not within walking distance of anywhere. This is important. I'll get to that shortly.
I also mention Scott Gallagher in my ramblings, which is another St. Louis club. I don't need to go into detail having already explained Rush. Same kind of deal.
Enjoy the thread.
There's such a community feel [in Barcelona]. These pitches are in the heart of their communities, not by the side of some highway on a flood plain. There's no parking. People don't drive. Home families can walk to games. Everyone else takes the incredible public transport. There are people here who are just out and about, chilling with their homies, enjoying the sunshine, having a beet or a snack, shooting the breeze while the game goes on.
The parents are way more relaxed than in America. Spanish culture is obviously much more laid back, but I'd also reckon part of it is because they haven't had to pay a small fortune for their kids to play. And then don't have to drive halfway across the state to go home. [I'll preface that by saying the most expensive club in Barcelona charges nine hundred Euros annually, and that is all inclusive. Such prices are rare. Expect more around three hundred. And of course, official academies (real academies, not just using it in the name to swindle parents) like Barcelona and Espanyol are free, as those kids are selected solely on ability, not having to factor in parent income.]
Kids in Barcelona are way more independent than Americans. I don't know if it is safer. It certainly feels safe. But then I believe much of the American parental fear of letting their kids out is driven by the Fox News boogeymen, whether it is communists, drug dealers, or Mexicans. Kids walk to school. They take the metro trains to places. They hang out in the streets and in the parks. American parents are so petrified of their own shadows, they don't let kids out of their sight.
American parents are way more competitive. So rather than taking the time to teach their kids and let them learn, Americans must get ahead as soon as possible. Because of that, they end up doing everything for their kids. Kids aren't allowed to develop independence.
All around me, right now, sat under the shade of an umbrella, sipping a coke and watching the game from up high, I hear conversations about all sorts. I hear the gentle breeze, I hear birds tweet. There's the occasional input from someone around me. But nobody is pacing up and down, like their entire emotional wellbeing is tied to the outcome of a kids' sporting event. The players in front of me are U19. Some are technically adults, some are still kids. Yet at none of the games have I felt like the emotional state of any of the parents depends on the outcome of the game. For many American parents, it feels like the game is super important. Often the highlight of their week.
The kids I've seen here don't play with fear. They're not made to feel as if something bigger than football is at stake, which is what American parents do with their "involvement." They make their kids feel as if their love for them is dependent upon athletic performance. Of course there are parents and coaches in Spain who need to dial it down a notch. Yet this is not a cultural issue, encouraging and reinforcing the behaviour. Those people are generally outliers.
Another element is play. At every half time, I've witnessed kids and entire families flock onto the pitch to use the interlude as an opportunity to shoot, pass, run around, try some skills. They love the ball, and they love interacting with others.
Small groups have broken out. Having the ball is a way of sharing and connecting. A way of being part of something. A way of belonging. This runs counter to the idea of American rugged individualism.
Another stark contrast is seen. The kids messing around on the pitch are mostly girls. Plenty of girls play football in America. That's not the point. What you don't see is American girls messing around with the ball in their downtime. In the American ideology, fun and exploration run counter to their idea of competition and performance. The if you're not first, you're last bollocks. How can you ever be a serious contender if you're having a laugh with your mates?
These girls are smiling, laughing, chasing each other, making fun of each other, and experimenting with the ball. I have never seen that with American girls. Their idea of training is purely physical, perhaps with some juggling.
Two out here are pinging long passes to each other. Another girl, probably nine, is taking free kicks from outside the box against her brother. She's actually making him work. Another group is in a circle juggling. Another group is passing and taking shots.
She's regularly hitting top corner in a full sized goal. How often do you think she has the opportunity to mess around like this? How many times has she done this to be so good?
The first love should always be the ball. That is not developed in America. Any American with that bit of flair got it by accident. Typically grown up abroad, or in a heavy immigrant population. Their football development occurred outside USSF. It's why futsal is so big here. One of the most important concepts in futsal is to stay on the ball. Too many countries teach their kids that the ball is a risk, and we need to get it as far away from our goal as possible. It's only safe when the ball is down the other end. Like with a lot of problems in America, the answers to those problems are easy to find. Sport mirrors life. Things are only not better because certain people make money from them being not better.
If you go to an American soccer complex, food and drink is extortionately priced. The money goes to a corporation. Here, I bought a burger and a drink. The dad took the money, the daughter worked the grill. The price was reasonable. Those Euros will help with the costs here. When you go to Rush, and have a meal at Llywelyn's fake British pub and pay $5 for a Coke and $15 for a shepherd's pie, served by a minimum wage teenager, that money isn't going towards helping local youth soccer.
When you go to Scott Gallagher and pay $6 for a Snickers, who is that profit margin benefiting? Unfortunately, in American culture, someone has to win, and someone has to make money.
There are many U12 American girls teams that would dominate these Spanish U19 girls in physical tests that measure speed, strength, endurance, agility etc. The longer the Americans continue to bark up that tree, the better it is for the rest of us. The dominance of the USWNT is coming to an end. Like in men's football, Europe will soon take over as the epicentre of women's football, if it hasn't already. The big five men's leagues in Europe look to be the locations for the big five women's leagues in coming years.
USA is now having to compete with this. Many of the schools here have futsal goals in their playgrounds. Girls are playing in the parks and the streets with their friends. Not to the same extent that boys are, but pretty much any number is a massive improvement on the zero that are doing it stateside.
The American culture is all about grind and passion. Of course you need those things to win. No team will win a World Cup or Champions League without them. American soccer culture seems to make the grind and the passion pretty much the only things about them, without adding the love, the flair, the fun, the tactics, the intelligence etc. American kids have it drilled into them from an early age that winning is super important. As a result, Americans don't do casual. There's no pickup or street football culture. What's the point? What does it lead to? Can you make money from it? No. It's just fun. Fun is seen as a waste of time. Something those less serious kids engage in.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention role models. Kids like to copy their idols. I have been fortunate enough to see the USWNT train in North Carolina in 2014, and to see a friendly of theirs in Missouri in 2019. These athletes are celebrities. They are household names. They are inspirations to young girls across the globe.
However... I may be out of line with this opinion. Neither Spain nor the US are my countries. I have no ties or blood linking me to either of them. I'm trying to speak as an impartial observer.
Have you ever tried to watch a USWNT friendly on TV? Do you have to turn the sound down? The incessant screaming from pre-adolescent girls is like something you'd expect at a Beatles concert. This happens for ninety minutes as they thrash the likes of New Zealand 5-0 in a friendly in St. Louis. Or 9-0 and 9-1 as they did in a recent pair of friendlies against the mighty footballing nation of Uzbekistan.
Take a step back for a moment and ponder this parallel. What would the reaction be if the England men's national team invited Uzbekistan to a pair of friendlies at, say... Wembley and Old Trafford? How would pundits on TalkSport and Sky react?
What a waste of a friendly.
Why the same team twice?
Why are we playing a team that even our E team could defeat comfortably?
I didn't even know Uzbekistan played football.
In what way does this prepare us for a Euros or World Cup?
How can Southgate learn anything about his team by playing this lot?
Adrian Durham would be calling for people at the FA to resign. Jason Cundy would be inventing a means for teams to qualify for the privilege of playing England in a friendly. Clinton Morrison would likely be confusing them with Turkmenistan. Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher would be tripping over themselves to get on Twitter first, tagging the other one to say "this team is so bad, even you could get a game for them!"
So why does it happen? Why do World Cup winners and Olympic gold medallists invite the likes of Uzbekistan to two friendlies? It's because of the screaming. The New Zealand game I went to was an absolute circus. The game was pitiful, like watching a lion play with a mouse. The noise was relentless, although it did die down around the 70th minute as all those hardcore soccer moms and dads remembered it was a school night, making the mad dash back to the car. Extra important considering Missouri had just moved to try and ban abortion and the city was almost blocked due to protests that day from the women's rights movement. If this was a sitcom, it would be rejected for being too ludicrous.
For many of the screaming young girls in those USWNT audiences, this will be one of the few soccer games they ever attend in their entire lives. That's a lot of screaming that has to come out, especially when you consider mom or dad will be shaving twenty minutes off of that match to beat the traffic. For Spanish girls who are interested in football, many have been watching for years. Seeing a game on TV with the family is part of their weekly routine. They grew up with Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets et al on their TV screens and in their stadia. I'd dare say that watching those guys on a frequent basis provides a far more meaningful football education than seeing Heath, Rapinoe, Morgan et al humiliate opponents who are the human equivalent of cones once every three or four years in a converted baseball field.
Not having been a young girl, I can't speak to the impact of whether top players need to be female or can be male in order to inspire. I do know that for many young girls growing up in England when I was young, Bend It Like Beckham meant the world to them, despite having some of the worst choreographed football scenes in cinema history, because to them it was about representation and inclusion. As a straight, white male, I've never been excluded from football. Or anything for that matter.
In terms of pure modelling, as a coach, I'd be way more likely to send my players clips of the aforementioned Barcelona men strutting their stuff against Real Madrid, Valencia, Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, Villarreal etc. than I would clips of the USWNT walk the ball into the net against Thailand or Uzbekistan.
I think there is something to it. Proximity allows for quicker diffusion of ideas. Young girls training in the shadows of the Nou Camp by some juego de posicion obsessed male coach, I believe, would be more beneficial for footballing development than the vast majority of youth soccer experiences I've seen in the US. The balls are kept in the bags at the start of the session, coach reads the riot act, much of the time is devoted to fitness (which is a very generous way of saying laps and press-ups) and the players don't really learn any footballing concepts.
American success is a numbers game. When there are more registered female soccer players in San Francisco than there are in the entirety of England, it's possible for a staff of soccer coaches across the country to be immensely wasteful with the talent at their disposal and still have enough good players left over to win World Cups. In the last few years, Spain has accelerated the growth of their female football programmes. The Barcelona women's team are now one of the strongest club sides on the planet. And I would have been able to see them if I didn't have to return home twice from my time here to help my team successfully navigate the relegation playoffs.
I frequently see Alexia Putellas when I'm out and about for my walks. Female footballers, in some parts of Europe, are now becoming as culturally influential as their male counterparts. Suburban lifestyles, spread out geography, and a predominantly middle class demographic provide some real barriers for Americans to contend with. The clubs in Europe are intertwined into the fabric of their cities. The stadia are historical landmarks that inspire pilgrimages.
I'm not the first to say it, and I won't be the last. The USWNT will slowly be left behind. We're at the precipice. Once they fall, there's no coming back. When you're on top, you have to evolve to stay on top. The USA hasn't done that, and will soon pay the price. If ever another country is to dominate women's football in the same way the USWNT did, Spain is certainly a contender to sit on that throne. And maybe, as this massive poster at the Nou Camp suggests, they already have their queen.