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Resources Mar 03, 2015

China is training an army of youth soccer players: Can the U.S. beat this?

WendyLeBolt-HeaderHow much money does it take to buy a World Cup? China would like to find out. Apparently, Chinese president Xi Jinping loves soccer and is tired of the international embarrassment their men’s team has been to the country.

Their current ranking, 82nd in the world, suggests an inferiority not befitting a global economic and military power. And their new leader is making a few changes.

So, what do you do if you have 1.4 billion people, nearly unlimited resources and a desire for soccer world dominance? According to an article in last Sunday’s Washington Post, you start with 20,000 existing elementary, middle and high schools and repurpose them as soccer-focused institutions, supplying soccer fields, coaches and extensive funding and training. Then you send your most “advanced students” to overseas campuses in Spain and the Netherlands.

+ READ: A “female-friendly” soccer ball: Friend or Foe?

There’s more, but the objective is clear: If dollars and compliance can breed championship soccer, China is making their move.

Even before I read the Post article, I heard this same announcement at the Project Play Summit, an international gathering hosted in Washington, D.C. by the Aspen Institute, that China was forming 20,000 new “soccer clubs” across its country. Whoa! Now that’s putting your money where your mouth is. Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of Aspen Institute, quipped, “That’s what happens when you have a ‘Ministry of Sport.’” Then he added quickly, “not to say that we should have a ministry of soccer …”

But who’s not making that comparison? The wealthy, superpowered United States, with its huge resources, ample facilities, plethora of international coaches, abundance of athleticism, and determination done the American way, still falls short at the highest levels of soccer competition, at least on the men’s side. Some wonder if the women’s side may have a few surprises in store for them at this year’s World Cup as well. We know, perhaps better than any other nation, that financial resources do not a World Cup make. Or do we?

USYouthRegionI-Barboursville-waterlogged-CreditI wonder if this vast Chinese soccer initiative is offering us a unique opportunity to reflect on ourselves. Money buys facilities, pays coaches, and supports programs, but it doesn’t develop creativity and innovation. That has to be discovered. And, if many at the Project Play Summit are right, that is best discovered when kids have time, space and basic resources where they can play safely and free from instruction or criticism from adults.

The Chinese way is to pour funds into the assembly line production. They are dominant in sports which require precision and exactness. Their athletes seem tireless in their repetition to perfection: think gymnastics, diving or skating, for example. Athletes start early and stay focused on just one thing in those arenas. But soccer is not that kind of sport. While execution of skills is essential and ‘perfection’ of touch is fundamental, they don’t make the game. The players make the game. Can a player pool created en masse uncover talent?

It will be interesting to see what the Chinese initiative produces. Their new schools are set to open by 2017 to churn out 100,000 children playing ‘perfected’ soccer under the “new curriculum.” I wonder if they will be allowed to the take the time away from their studies in order to play. I’m not imagining a lot of giggling going on at those fields, but running and jumping and kicking a soccer ball just have to be a relief!

+ READ: LeBolt: Should your kid be a specialist, or general practitioner?

What about the U.S. Soccer “curriculum”? True, the U.S. soccer scene is not so bleak as it is in China, but many here would say we aren’t meeting expectations, even though plenty of funds have been invested in our privileged soccer-playing kids. According to the Project SoccerPlex_Field_nightPlay Summit think tank, (read the report here) the answer for soccer and youth sport in America, is both less and more.

Less specialization and more unstructured “street soccer” style play for our privileged kids, and fewer obstacles and more playing opportunities for our urban and underserved kids. What a huge pool of creativity we might find if these two cohorts met at middle ground! (The PLAYground, of course.)

Assembly line production is not in our DNA. Our strength is diversity of color, race, nation of origin and you add the rest. If we put our money where our American-dream philosophy is, it wouldn’t surprise me if we grew up a more creative and innovative generation who so enjoyed the game, they stunned the World Cup world. Oh, and not accidentally, stayed active and healthy for life — obesity epidemic and health care crisis, averted.

Hey, there’s not just a World Cup at stake here folks. Our greatest challenge from the Chinese children may not be on the soccer pitch but in the international job market, now that those 100,000 children get to play!

In next week’s article, I’ll be digging into the projects and opportunities U.S. Soccer is making available at the local levels to reach more kids with the beautiful game. There are plenty of us making noise about how the system is broken and needs fixing. The solution may be right in front of us.

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