'We sacrificed our lives for this': How U.S. prodigy Ben Lederman's career was almost ruined at Barcelona
GENT, Belgium -- It's a sleepy, sun-splashed Sunday morning. In and around St. Bavo's Cathedral, there is little traffic, either by car or by foot. But a 10-minute cab ride away, the training center for local side KAA Gent is buzzing with activity. The club's youth teams are playing their weekly league fixtures, with parents, siblings and friends watching. Some of the spectators cheer while others contort their bodies in a futile attempt to influence the action.
Amid the buzz, the club's U-21 team strolls onto the one field that remains empty for a scheduled practice. With a chunk of the side away on international duty, it's a skeleton crew of roughly a dozen players. It is here that Ben Lederman, who's been on and off the U.S. soccer radar since the tender age of 11, will take the next steps in his bid to scale the professional soccer ladder.
There was a time that Lederman, now 18, invited considerable attention -- and hope -- from a U.S. fan base eager to see the country produce its first transformative, globally impactful star. Seven years ago, he was invited to play at La Masia, Barcelona's famous academy that helped develop Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Lederman's idol. Yet the workout on this slow Sunday feels miles away from such star-studded company.
Gent's reserve team manager, Bart van Renterghem, is putting his players through their paces; Lederman's quality on the ball is evident. While he is the slightest player on the field, he has little difficulty dealing with the technical aspects of the session and shows off a potent left foot.
Afterward, in the team cafeteria, Lederman cuts a quiet, shy figure, somewhat reminiscent of another U.S. playmaker, Christian Pulisic. Lederman has the same sense of determination, too.
"It's my dream to become a professional, and I'm not going to stop until I achieve it," he says.
Yet while Pulisic recently signed a record-breaking deal for a U.S. player in agreeing to join Chelsea, and while the U.S.-based players are gathering for their first January camp under new coach Gregg Berhalter, Lederman is still out there, working through drills and trying to finish what he started at Barcelona.
'We sacrificed our lives for this'
Lederman was invited to attend La Masia in 2011 after impressing scouts at a friendly between his club team in California and a Barca youth side. Following a week-long trial, he became the first American to be enrolled in the club academy's history. (In the years since, another American, Konrad de la Fuente, has been accepted, and de la Fuente is with Barcelona B in the Segunda Division.) Even at the age of 11, Lederman's technique and vision simply dazzled their scouts. His family -- father Danny, mother Tammy and brother Dean -- made the gut-wrenching decision to uproot their lives in Southern California and move to Barcelona to be with him, their futures even more tightly bound to his soccer dreams.
What ensued was one part "The Odyssey," with a dollop of "The Truman Show." Lederman's progress was monitored by fans and media from afar even as he was understandably shielded by his parents and the club. The fact that he was a continent away made it easier, though Lederman was profiled (but not interviewed) by the New York Times when he was 13.
"In Barcelona, everyone was treating Ben just like one of the kids," Tammy Lederman said by telephone. "He didn't get any special treatment so he didn't feel anything special or feel anything unique. He's a small kid who came to play here. That's all we wanted him to concentrate on."
Even as Ben grew older and became more aware of the attention his journey was generating, he tuned out most of it.
"I would always try to focus on my game and let others talk about what they want," he says. "I would try to just focus every day on the field and not pay attention to the media and these kind of things. It was always kind of the same, just enjoy my game and leave the media out of it."
The intrusions came from elsewhere, namely FIFA.
FIFA's Article 19 of its Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players prohibits youth players from registering with a club outside their home country until they are 18. The regulation allows three exceptions: If a player lives within 50 kilometers of a country's border and his desired club is within 50 kilometers of the same border; if a player is moving from one European country to the other (or has a passport from a European Union country) and is at least 16; or if a player's family has moved to a different country for reasons not linked to soccer.
Lederman didn't satisfy any of those criteria. FIFA began investigating, and Tammy recalled that the family was made aware of the problem soon after they relocated to Barcelona. But it wasn't until 2014, when Ben was 14, that FIFA dropped the hammer and ruled that the Blaugrana had violated the statute relating to 10 youth players, including Lederman. Among the penalties, the players involved were forbidden from playing games for Barcelona youth teams, though they were allowed to train. For one year, Lederman was in limbo, consigned to practices and the occasional friendly, as the club fought FIFA's decision.
"It was a very difficult situation because me and my family, we sacrificed our lives for this and to not be able to play every week, it was difficult for everyone," Lederman says.
The rules may be well-intentioned to stop youth players from being exploited, but they don't allow for flexibility or nuance. Tammy still fumes over the ruling.
"I think it's very unfair," she said. "Somebody was telling me it was like my son being accepted to Harvard or one of the top universities in the U.S. and them telling me, 'Okay, you cannot come and be a student here because you're not American.' If somebody is good enough and is capable and he has a talent and he's being prevented because he doesn't have the papers... I mean if they had [the statute] during Lionel Messi's time, they wouldn't have Messi today because Messi was 12 when he moved from Argentina and he didn't have any European passport.
"We don't agree with that rule at all. But try to fight FIFA, it's impossible. We tried. We had the best lawyers from the club and everybody lost."
In a bid to get around the regulations, Lederman decided to pursue a Polish passport through his parents, but then FIFA said Lederman couldn't even train with Barcelona. He returned to the U.S., enrolled at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and took part in camps with the U.S. U-17 national team. It was then that the toll taken from a lack of game action revealed itself.
"At such a young age, it's important to compete every day, every week. And to not be able to do it for a year, I felt it," he says. "Tactically, and the way I move on the field, I didn't feel as comfortable. After a year of not playing, I felt lost a little bit at first on the field. But I got used to it. After maybe five or six months, I was back."
He didn't make the U.S. team for the 2017 U-17 World Cup, but his career soon received a boost, as the long-awaited Polish passport arrived. The midfielder hightailed it back to Europe and Barca welcomed him back, no questions asked. But as much as Lederman felt like he had come home, the difficulty in making it all the way through the academy to the first team became more apparent.
In Lederman's first season back, in 2016, all was well. But his playing time decreased during his second season under coach Denis Silva. Tammy felt Silva didn't connect with Lederman, and Lederman said he could no longer see a path to the Barcelona first team. Even though he was offered the chance to continue or go on loan, he opted to leave.
Lederman and his family didn't take the decision lightly. For Tammy, it has sparked some considerable reflection. She estimates that she receives about one call a month from families who are pondering taking the same path they did -- leaving the United States for an international academy. Her advice is loaded with caution even as Lederman's father, Danny, developed a business sending Barcelona youth coaches to a school in China.
"I always said I don't think I would do it again if I had to," she said. "But it's very hard, especially when you have an older child and he didn't want to move. He was very happy with his life in California. He felt like he was paying a price. 'Why do I have to change my life for my younger brother?' Also [it was hard] for me. My parents still live in Los Angeles. I'm away from my family, I'm away from my sister and my whole side of the family.
"I cannot tell you it's for everybody. Not everybody can just get up and go. It's not easy."
'You can't just put him in... he's not ready'
With the low numbers at the Sunday practice, Van Renterghem finishes things with a 7-vs.-4 drill. Given the superior numbers on Lederman's team, it would be easy to just pile forward and overwhelm the defense, but Lederman shows patience, a sense of space and timing in terms of when to make late runs into the box.
Gent isn't at the same high level as Barcelona, of course. But they've had some success, winning the Belgian league in 2014-15, and produced top players such as Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne. This time around, Lederman is trying to navigate his way alone. He's matter-of-fact about how he landed with Gent, too. After his contract ran out at Barcelona, Lederman's agent informed him of interest in Belgium, and he chose Gent. He quickly found a comfort level with the club.
"I decided to stay because I was happy," he says. "Everyone was treating me nice, everyone was treating me with respect."
Lederman secured his spot after impressing on trial over the summer and was one of two trialists to sign, beating out around 30 competitors. His skills, in particular his ability to adapt quickly, caught the eye of Van Renterghem and the club.
"[Lederman] was on the bus in the back row between all the other Belgian players talking like, 'Okay, we played together...' It was amazing," Van Renterghem said. "It's also important that we have the impression that the boy feels good here and adapts very fast. Of course he had to adapt as a very young kid in Spain. It has to be very hard for him, but if you talk with him about it, he just did it."
Lederman has fit in with his teammates so well that he serves as the unofficial team deejay. That said, challenges remain. In November, Gent had 35 players in its first-team squad, which doesn't leave much in the way of available minutes when they come down to play with the U-21s. Then there is the matter of style. Though Belgium has produced some incredibly skilled players over the years, enabling the Red Devils to reach the semifinals of last summer's World Cup, Lederman notes that there is more of a physical element to the game in Belgium. That is the area where he has the most room to grow.
"[In Belgium] it's much more direct, I think. Three passes, you're already in the other half," Lederman says. "Long balls... it's a different game, more tactical as well. In Spain, there's much more possession, much more build-up [play] and creating chances from possession. Here it's much more physical.
"The first two months here, it was very difficult. I'm coping really well. I'm on a gym program, training three times a week there, also running without the ball. I'm getting used to it. By now I can play 90 minutes easy."
There have been the usual ups and downs. Lederman played once for the U-18s and performed so poorly that the coach asked Van Renterghem not to send him down again. But Lederman recovered and was called up for a first-team friendly against St. Truiden. Though he didn't play, it was at least a tangible sign that his skills are getting noticed. Van Renterghem is taking a slow-and-steady approach.
"If we put Lederman on the field with the first team now, he will show some nice things but he will lose too many duels," he said. "The fans will start to moan a little bit, he will feel that. You can't just put him in and play now. He's not ready. His body should develop."
As such, Van Renterghem is reluctant to place any predictions on Lederman's future at Gent.
"I can't estimate if Ben will ever make a chance to develop here in our first team," he says. "If he does not in our first team, he will for sure make good at another team. The boys have to wait, wait, wait; [they have] to work hard, to prepare them for that one chance they eventually will have."
His parents, who still live in Barcelona, make occasional visits, though Lederman has put down some roots.
"I have many friends on the team," he says. "I live in an apartment with a teammate of mine. I'm never lonely, I'm always with someone. It's just difficult to cook sometimes."
The competition is such that Lederman's future with Gent is uncertain. Yet for all the talk of how he needs to get stronger, he knows he adds something special to the team.
"I think I brought that extra possession game here," he says. "I try to keep the team more with possession and not play so direct at times. I know when to play direct and know when to keep it simple."
As Lederman works through the session that quality stands out, as do others. He's working and waiting for his chance. He still has hope.