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Nov 24, 2012

The kids aren't all right

Almost seven years ago, I rang up Kasey Keller. We're old buddies and I wanted to shoot the breeze a bit, hear how life was at Monchengladbach and if it was true that his home was now really his castle.

No, just kidding. Somebody had given me Keller's mobile number and asked me to call him and propose doing a blog during the months leading up to the World Cup in Germany.

But it wasn't Keller who answered the phone, it was his wife. Kasey couldn't take the call, she said, because he was driving and would I please call again in fifteen minutes or so. Then, by way of an explanation, she added: "We've just dropped off the kids at practice and now we're going home."

A quarter of an hour later it was indeed 'The Wall' himself who picked up the phone. "You took the kids to practice?" I said. "What do they play? Baseball, basketball?"

"Oh no," he said, "they play soccer. Football."

"So why didn't you stay around and watch the training session?" I asked. "Is it because you get recognised?"

"That's not the problem," he laughed. "No, it's not that." He made a pause, then he said in a more serious tone: "You know, the training is so bad. I cannot bear to watch it. Do you know what I mean?"

Now it was my turn to laugh. "Oh yes," I said, "I know exactly what you mean."

I coached youth teams for about six years in the late 1990s and early Noughties and there were many moments when I wondered if everybody out there was crazy or if they simply put all the crazies into youth football. Or if I was on Candid Camera 24/7 and didn't get the joke.

By this I don't mean the kids. The kids were almost always a joy to work with. On most of the teams that I coached, there were boys from up to seven different ethnic backgrounds but they got along just fine and it was fun having them around. Even when they started to argue with me.

They usually started to argue because they had watched their peers train. At the Under-9 level, for instance, there were so many kids that we set up a number of teams, two of which would usually train at the same time but on different parts of the pitch.

My colleague, the moustachioed architect with the impressive belly, had his boys jog six or seven laps (to "warm up"), then they ran up and down the concrete stairs leading to the stands for what seemed like an eternity (to "build up stamina"), finally they formed a line in front of goal and waited until it was their turn to whack a ball.

When they had done this, they walked to the end of the line and stood there again to wait some more. This was known as "shooting practice".

It was like watching a car wreck. You want to go over and help save lives but you don't know how and so you just stop and stare in horror. The worst bit, however, was that my boys, who had been playing a game with a few rule twists for the past twenty minutes, would come over to me and ask why they weren't doing "proper training" like that.

I explained that as young kids they were basically made of rubber and had what is known as natural stamina, so they would never pull a muscle and never tire. I said it was much more important for them to work with the ball and that the rest would only become necessary in a few years' time. They accepted this, if grudgingly, because none of them could indeed remember ever having had cramps or muscle strains or not being able to run anymore.

But they were adamant about shooting practice. That, they said, was very important. Triumphantly, I said that each of them had just had more shots on goal during our little game than the boys on the other side of the pitch would have all day. They didn't know what to say to that, but I could tell from the looks they shot me that they weren't convinced.

They may have doubted me during the week, when we practiced, but they learned to like me on the weekends, when we played, for the simple reason that I usually kept my mouth shut. You'd think it's the easiest thing in the world to do that, but some people are constitutionally incapable of watching a football game and not scream at the players, even if these happen to be small boys. And all of these people, it seems, work in youth football.

While writing this column, I phoned my son, now a young man, and said: "Do you remember that game where the opposing goalkeeper suddenly broke into tears and didn't want to play anymore because his own coach was yelling all the time? Where was that?" He replied: "Well, that happened all the time at the Under-9 and Under-11 level. Those coaches were all choleric."

But even worse than the coaches were the parents. I know this is a cliché well worn-out, but there's a lot of truth to it. There were parents who asked me not to play certain boys because they weren't good enough. I told them that, in the old days, boys would play on the streets and the very best of them would then join a club. But today, I said, nobody plays in the streets, now the boys join clubs to play football at all and it was my job to encourage that, not frustrate the kids by putting them on the bench. I never got through.

These parents carried newspaper cutouts with the standings - yes, even at the Under-9 level - to see where we stood in relation to our local rivals.

A few years later - and I swear this is a true story - a father sidled up to me while I was watching a practice match and suggested I teach the kids to play an offside trap. I replied that there were no linesmen at our games, that the opposing coach was almost always the referee (because I refused to ref) and that my boys didn't really understand the offside-rule. At that very moment, a ball rolled into touch right next to us. A player picked it up, made the thrown-in and the father yelled: "Offside!" Dumbfounded, I told him: "There is no offside on a throw-in!" "Oh," he said sheepishly. "I didn't know that."

The highlight of every season was the away game at VfL Bochum. We'd usually get a drubbing, but the boys could play on artificial grass instead of the bumpy gravel pitches that littered the league. There were no parents watching and the Bochum coaches were invariably very quiet and reserved and just let the kids play. It was a bit like a brief vacation for us, before it was back to the world of bickering parents, hysterical coaches and hazardous playing surfaces.

My son quit playing the game around 2004 because it just wasn't fun anymore. I tried to soldier on for another season, but it got really chaotic at the Under-15 level. We had lost so many kids who had either given up on football out of frustration or had discovered the kinds of distractions you naturally do at this age that we couldn't field a complete team. When it was suggested that the boys in question should simply skip this level and join the Under-17s, I walked out.

The worst aspect is that our club was a totally typical one. In Germany, youth football is club football, not school football. When you want to play the game, you just join your local club and hope they have a half-decent pitch and half-decent coaches. Most of the time they have neither.

There are more than 90,000 clubs in Germany. Simple math tells you that the vast majority of coaches working in them are entirely unqualified, they are just parents like myself or even older boys from the Under-17s. Simple math also tells you that the facilities at most clubs are deplorable.

Our club catered to a community of only 6,000 people (2,000 of whom were members of the club). Whenever I suggested we pool our resources with one of the many surrounding clubs and share a good pitch or a qualified coach, howls of protest went up as those clubs were seen not as neighbours but as fierce rivals.

Which is why I marvel at all those bright young talents we have at the moment and why I often think they didn't make it because of our youth set-up but in spite of it. Of course Thomas Muller, Julian Draxler or Mario Gotze were at one point scouted and then sent to bigger, better clubs or pooled at one of the 366 regional centres of excellence set up over the last ten years or so.

But they started out at a club just like ours. Gotze first joined SC 1919 Ronsberg (membership: 1,000), Muller played for TSV Pahl (membership: 600) until he was almost 11, Draxler began kicking balls at BV Rentfort, a small club from Gladbeck. Somehow they defied incompetent coaches, irresponsible parents, awful pitches and training sessions Kasey Keller couldn't bear to watch and ended up playing in the Champions League.

More power to them.

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