Single-Digit Soccer: Pelada and the love of the game

A couple of seasons ago, when I gathered one of my youth teams for our first practice, I told them I had the best toy ever invented. Around the world, you could find people who have no concept of a Wii or an Xbox, but if you handed them this particular thing, they would be happy to play for hours.

Then I held up a soccer ball.

This exchange is one of many reasons my players consider me an eccentric. They don’t realize that the rest of the world sees soccer not as something to be played in a designated hour when their parents get them to a practice field, but something to be played anytime and anywhere.

I thought about that contrast when I did something I’ve wanted to do for two years but somehow hadn’t found the time. I watched the film Pelada, in which former Notre Dame player Luke Boughen and fellow Duke alum Gwendolyn Oxenham travel the world and hop into as many pickup soccer games as they can.

They do their best to keep the film unpredictable. No one’s going to be surprised that a trip to South America will turn up some passionate soccer games. Boughen and Oxenham find a few twists. In Brazil, they find a group of grumpy old men who fuss at each other on the field in their Sunday games but bury it all to have a beer or two afterwards. In Bolivia, they bribe their way into the site of some epic pickup games — a local prison.

They don’t do much in Europe other than helping the police locate the people who sold them counterfeit Euro 2008 tickets. But the African and Asian legs are fascinating. In Kenya, they find a man who reclaimed a trash dump as a soccer field and has put in so much work on the project that people assume he’s being paid to do it. In China, where the national team is a quadrennial disappointment, they find some freestylists whose moves blow away the trick-loving Boughen. In Tokyo, where space is scarce, they find rooftop soccer.

Their idealism is challenged in Israel and Iran, in scenes that nearly made me want to rip the COEXIST sticker off my car. In Israel, Arabs and Jews share a soccer field, but it’s an uneasy coexistence. When Boughen scores for a Jewish pickup side, the Arab team refuses to believe it — even after consulting the documentary crew’s camera. In Iran, the filmmakers are summoned before a government body when word gets around that Oxenham, dutifully covering her hair in a headscarf, has played a pickup game with men.

But on the whole, it’s a happy film. It shows how deeply this game is entrenched in the world and how much joy it brings. (I’ll confess that I was hoping, for sake of diversity or perhaps for my own ego, that they would find some players who play as badly as I do.)

If that doesn’t convince you to watch the film, let Ray Hudson persuade you:

So as a fan, I found the film a lot of fun. As a player, it made me wish I had kept up my foot skills or at least my cardio.

How about as a coach of young players? What can I learn from this film on that front?

It’s tempting to ask what I can do to get my teams to love the game as much as Oxenham and Boughen love it. But *I* don’t even love the game quite that much. I was a promising U14 sweeper who quit playing because I wanted to run track, play chess and act in plays instead of dealing with the guys on the high school soccer team. Now I show my love for the game by coaching a couple of youth teams and hoping my adult indoor team can use me in goal rather than in the field, where I’m winded after a few minutes.

The accusation against most youth coaches is that we’re “joystick coaches,” always yelling at kids to spread out and pass. (Or worse, “boot it.”) The prevailing thought is that if we ease up a bit and “let the kids play,” they’ll love the game a bit more and play it a bit better.

Here’s the problem: Young kids in the USA gravitate toward magnetball, with a mob of kids chasing the ball. By the time we grow up and play small-sided games as adults, we spread out and play a style more akin to Pelada, though we still have the occasional showboating jerk who steps up at forward and never thinks about helping out on defense. But you’re not going to roll a ball out to a group of 7-year-old Americans and see what you can see in Pelada.

I’m not sure whether 7-year-olds in other countries have better instincts. We don’t see a lot of kids in Pelada. But we know we don’t have as many neighborhood pickup fields here as they do in the other countries in Pelada. Nor do our kids watch quite as much soccer.

It’d be an interesting contrast for the Pelada crew come to one of my practices. The kids are easily distracted. They usually prefer punting the ball as far as they can to trying any of the fancy moves most players have in Pelada. I spend a lot of dealing with players whose parents want them to try a team sport. Or some players who are indifferent.

Some will become travel soccer stars. Most won’t. But I hope they’ll all enjoy the game well enough to appreciate it, watch it, maybe play it a little.

Because, frankly, my 30-and-over team needs some help.