A Positive Learning Soccer Story

There are many wonderful things about the holiday time each year. One of the best practices during late December is the telling of stories that carry a positive outcome and often offer a meaningful lesson to accompany the tale. We see uplifting movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Home Alone” that use the Christmas and New Year period to make us feel great and teach life lessons to boot. The Hallmark Channel devotes weeks to the telling of tales that end with problems that are solved through the learning of lessons that are important all year long.

In keeping with that tradition, the Soccer Yoda would like to tell a story, at this time of year, that like those mentioned above, has an important life lesson to teach and a positive outcome to make the reader smile. This tale is true and, of course, it’s a soccer story. What it isn’t- is a Christmas story- I decided to use the season as an excuse to relate a real-life happening that still reminds me of an important lesson I and a group of teen-age boys learned a long time ago.

In the summer of 1984 I was into my fourth year of coaching a team of boys living in Columbia,Md. The Soccer Association of Columbia was formed in 1971 and had grown into one of the stronger soccer clubs in the East, producing a number of Maryland State champion teams as well as several Eastern regional titleholders and a national championship team ( and more were to come in the near future). My team was a good team, we had risen from the Washington DC beltway league’s 3rd division all the way to the first and we were looking to continue that improvement. To that end, we decided that a trip overseas could have a great impact on the boys.

 

A word about team names – it is common practice here in the 20-teen years to name youth soccer teams by a specific process: the name of the club comes first, then the year of the players birth, then either a color or a level description  (or both)  or perhaps the coaches initials to indicate which particular team it is. So a team at the same level as our story team ( u-16, top team) would be named SAC 2002 Premier Blue at the present time. Under the present system we would have been SAC 1968 Premier Blue. But back in the 70’s and 80’s team names were different. There were fewer teams at that time and many clubs including ours used team names to inspire loyalty and pride. For while “SAC 1968 Premier Blue” might be descriptive, it certainly doesn’t raise any passion or identity. All SAC teams went by the name “Columbia” ( it helped that there were no competing soccer organizations in the city at that time) and had a nickname that was unique to that team in the organization. Therefore there were Columbia Eagles and Columbia Strikers and Columbia Comets and the like. We took the name of the top professional team in the country and thus were the Columbia Cosmos (it was a nice alliteration and the fact that I had an ex-player of mine on the actual Cosmos didn’t hurt the idea).

The Columbia Cosmos as u-14’s

 

In that summer of ’84 our team went to Europe to play and learn from the best European soccer nations at that time , Holland and Germany. I had made this trip before with an older team and it was very worthwhile on many levels. We were going to travel through the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, play 8 games and learn as much about soccer and Europe as we could. Our first stop was at the Dutch National Training Center at Papendal which is located just outside of Arnhem. There we would train for a short week ,play a game against local competition and then head out to Germany. I had been at Papendal before, it was (and is) a terrific facility which is used by many teams and clubs for training purposes and in the summer it is especially busy. On this trip we were joined at the facility by a first division Greek squad and a Dutch soccer camp consisting of about 200 boys ages 8-16.

The outstanding fields at Papendal

We stayed in dorms and ate meals at a cafeteria used by all those using the center. We arrived in the evening and the next morning went to breakfast before our first training session. During the meal one of the boys came to me and said,”Coach, is it just me or are those Dutch kids staring at us?”. I glanced around quickly and remarked that I didn’t see anything unusual. Our sessions went well, the fields were perfect, the weather was great. But as each meal occurred, the boys became more convinced that the camp kids were staring and laughing at them. This bothered them far more than it should have and began to have an effect on their overall experience at the center. I tried to assure the boys that being Americans, they would normally attract some degree of attention in Europe and these were youngsters who had probably never seen an American at all. “They know the USA isn’t very good at soccer and they are laughing at us” was the general thought of the team though. Given that all were there to play soccer everyone wore the same general apparel and hair styles were no different from each other, so that the only reason the Dutch boys gave our team extra attention was a perceived ineptness on the field, or so my kids surmised. “Coach, they haven’t even seen us practice, how do they know whether we are good or not? Just because our national team can’t make it to the World Cup?” I still wasn’t aware of any extreme behavior at meals but the kids insisted that they were being disrespected and I did notice some added attention paid to them at times. As they were itching to play a match on those grass-carpet fields I decided to talk to the camp coaches about a game between us and their best u-16 campers.

The camp coaches asked if I could wait a day for their answer as they needed to talk to their director. The next day they told me that the director had decided that if any of their campers were hurt in a match with us, they would be liable for damages and parents would be very upset if that were to happen. I understood the caution but the team wasn’t happy. “They laugh at us but they won’t give us a chance to prove we can play.” As I ran a soccer camp myself I understood the caution and explained the reasoning to the boys. They calmed down but it was evident that they really wanted to prove that they (and therefore Americans in general) could play the game at least as well as an assortment of camp kids. This was bothering them to no end.

Finally the last day of our stay arrived and in the evening we were matched up with the best u-16 team in the area. Our team was very ready to play and out-hustled the opposition during the first 5 minutes resulting in a scrappy goal for us. This fired the boys up even more but the Dutch team started putting together some good passing moves and held the ball in our half for a few minutes. Suddenly we took possession and then put together as fine a counter-attack as one would see at that level… a fast series of three balls down our flank followed by a centering pass to a late running central midfielder who found the net with one well placed touch. The boys went crazy, the opposition slumped….and then the kids noticed the campers watching the game from the hill overlooking the field. If anything they were now even more energized than before and by the time it was over we had decimated our foe 7-0.

Columbia Cosmos find space and counter attack

As we walked back to our dorm we passed the building housing the campers. They had disappeared after the game and frankly the boys were basking in their performance rather than worrying about what a bunch of Dutch youngsters thought (finally!). As we walked past the camp dormitory, I saw a boy looking out from the front door. When he saw us he yelled out in English,”Here they come boys!” With that the door slammed open and at least a hundred campers of all ages came streaming out, running up to our team , all of them armed with paper and writing utensils. In broken English they asked every player on our team for their autograph. My kids were astonished, at first unsure of what to do and then signing with the most bemused looks on their faces. They laughed, they signed, they tried to converse, they shook hands, they even hugged the younger campers. Nothing could have topped off that match effort like this reception. After a long while the campers gradually returned to the dorm. I noticed that the “lookout” who had hailed our appearance was among the campers still lingering. I surmised that he spoke some English and went to him and asked,” This is very nice, but why do you want our autographs?” He looked at me and said incredulously,”you are Cosmos!”

It took me a second or two……and suddenly it all fell into place …and I felt somewhat ashamed. My team and myself among them had totally misinterpreted the campers. Our own doubts and insecurity had allowed us to completely misread these children. European professional clubs, especially the larger organizations , have youth teams to groom potential players for the senior team. Many of these youngsters end up as stars, others don’t pan out. At present MLS clubs are developing youth teams like their European counterparts. In 1984 the Cosmos were a world-famous team. They had brought world renown players like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, and others to New York in order to build a soccer organization that would provide a base for the growth of the game in the USA. Given the talent level of the team, any youth playing in the Cosmos  organization would naturally be considered to be extremely talented and a probable future star. The campers were staring at the Columbia Cosmos in the mistaken belief that we were the NY Cosmos u-16 team ( which did not even exist at that time) and the rout of the local team that they had just witnessed convinced them that we were the real deal…..which we were not. A little communication during the week could have cleared up the confusion and perhaps forged some friendships, created some international understanding and, while costing my boys their moment of false celebrity, it could also have spared them their week-long anxiety. Communication can solve many misunderstandings, and once the barriers were broken down, even for just one short evening, we found that the love of soccer made for a great commonality.

The Cosmos (Columbia) played some fine soccer in Europe

 

Epilogue

During our trip we were treated like royalty by so many great people. I am happy to say that perhaps the experience at Papendal had an effect as the boys had a wonderful time, made many friends and found ways to communicate with citizens of three different countries. We also won almost every game , even defeating a German Regional Championship team who underestimated us badly. Our one loss was a fantastic game against a REAL professional u-16 team when we played Schalke 04. Schalke is a long time successful first-division German club and we were lucky enough to play their u-16’s in their former stadium, the Glückauf-Kampfbahn. The stadium held 34,000 people, we played before about 50. We lost 2-0, which sounds excellent considering the competition, but in all honesty, if we were awarded a goal for every time we got into Schalke’s defending third, we still would have probably lost. For a squad that considered itself a possession team, we learned what possession was truly all about. But that was fine, after all that kind of learning was the point of the trip.

Schalke 04’s stadium during a filled house game. We played before about 33,950 fewer fans than this.

Members of the Columbia Cosmos have done well. Many were the nucleus of an undefeated state championship high school team. Members of the team played in such diverse colleges as Catawba College, Jacksonville St, UMBC, Dartmouth, U of Maryland, US Naval Academy (captain!). While ex-Cosmos have succeeded in many different careers, there are some still attached to the game, coaching in places such as College of Charleston, LSU, U of Maryland, Loyola College, U of North Carolina Greensboro. The Soccer Yoda (that’s me) likes to think that the lessons learned through the sport of soccer contributed to the lives and successes of these men, for in the long run, for youth, that is the purpose of the game.

 



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