If you’re like almost every other soccer enthusiast I know, you’re not paying any attention to soccer at the Olympics. Maybe you’re catching a few women’s games, especially if you’re from the United States, but you’re definitely not watching the men’s side.
If you’re like almost every casual observer I know, you’ve probably watched a few matches and wondered how Iraq managed to draw against Brazil, as did Japan against Colombia and South Korea against Germany (and how South Korea beat Mexico). And if you’re like some of the casual observers closest to me, you probably asked one of the enthusiasts how this was all possible.
Depending on who you ask, the answer may differ slightly in terms of animation, passion, and opinion on the matter, but the basic concept is the same: it’s U23, not the full or top squad.
The Reality of Olympic Soccer
For the sake of this post, I will be referring to the men’s side only. This is because, on the world scale, men’s soccer is what dominates television, news feeds, and financial markets. On the world scale, the majority of countries and people are mostly (or only) interested in the men’s side – I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, just that it is the current reality of the situation. The fact that the men’s side is what is most attended to is important for the real point of this piece.
As mentioned above, the Olympic competition is restricted to players age 23 and under (born January 1, 1993 or later). There is an exception, in which three players are allowed to be over this age limit. Also, the Olympics are taking place later in the summer, after many countries have already competed in major tournaments like the Euros or Copa America, which both occurred after most leagues finished a 9 or 10-month season. Furthermore, the preseason preparation - including matches - has already begun for the 2016-2017 season. Not to mention that there’s already been major trophies awarded.
At some point, players need to rest. Managers and coaches know this. Players definitely know this. And so does FIFA and the International Olympic Committee. When it comes down to it, someone needs to realize that they need to serve a purpose other than being a major international competition in which the world’s best players compete. It is also worth noting that a number of the world’s best players competing at the highest level for both club and country are in the U23 age range, so some countries don’t even have their best U23 team playing in the Olympics.
What the Olympics Can Teach Us
The IOC realizes they cannot be a major international soccer competition. The reality is that FIFA (and UEFA, CONMEBOL, etc.) are major governing bodies for the sport that operate year-round, every year. The Olympics “waltz in” every four years and decide to host a tournament that conflicts with the usual calendar and major competitions. They know they can’t compete, which is why the Olympics are not the same year as the World Cup. The IOC also has a history of restricting the eligibility of professionals. The purpose of the Olympics is not to be the best soccer competition – it’s to unite the world and display sportsmanship and embody the human spirit and positive competition. Not to mention, we all watch soccer year-round, every year. This is the “only” time people ever watch swimming, gymnastics, crew, volleyball, judo, track and field, etc. It’s good to let those sports get the spotlight once in a while.
And herein lies the lesson: The Olympics is honest with itself and realizes that it is not (and will not) be a major international soccer competition, so it has willingly designated itself as a lower-tier tournament that showcases the future stars of the sport, rather than the current stars. The IOC works with FIFA and lets them (and UEFA, CONMEBOL, etc.) be the “top dogs” in terms of soccer competition, which includes the domestic leagues.
What if The Olympics Changed Its Format?
If the IOC decided they wanted to become one of the major soccer competitions, allowing all players to play and perhaps hold the games at a different time, they would be competing directly with the other organizations’ tournaments. This would result in unintended, undesired lowering of the level of competition for everyone. Some countries would see the Olympics as an opportunity to shine and send their best players to that tournament, while using lesser players for the World Cup, Euros, or Copa America. Other countries would prioritize these other competitions and send lesser players to the Olympics.
This would result in uneven competition in, and be disrespectful to, the integrity of all the tournaments. In every tournament, we would have some really good teams and some average teams. We would never see every country competing with their absolute best players all at once. We would never truly know who the best team really is, since not everyone would be competing with their best at the same time.
What fun would that be? Who would enjoy that? Nobody.
Even though the Olympics are currently a lower-tier competition, at least we all know it in advance. We are expecting it to be slightly “less-exciting” than the World Cup because we all know it is a U23 competition. But all teams are competing at the same level. They all have the same restrictions. And we can still enjoy it, because it is a proper competition, and even though it’s not the top tier, it’s still quite good.
How This Relates to Youth Soccer Clubs
Remember the lesson: be honest with ourselves and recognize whether or not we are truly a top-level competitor, then embrace that role and work with others to make everyone’s situation positive.
Just like the international governing bodies and their respective tournaments, not everyone can be the “top dog” in a youth soccer community. Some clubs serve the purpose of developing the highest-level local players, while others serve mid-tier players, and others introductory or lower-tier players. This is how it should be, and in reality, it is this way – but not everyone will admit it. Side note: The differentiation of levels of players is by no means a judgement on the players themselves, nor does it mean to pigeon-hole players in a certain category forever. It serves to differentiate player abilities and/or desires at any given time.
Here’s what each of these types of organizations look like:
Highest-level youth players: The teams/clubs in the development academy (if applicable). End of story. This does not mean that the “best” 7-year old needs to play for one of these clubs. It means that at the age at which a player is eligible to play in the DA, if he/she desires to play at the highest-possible level, he/she should try to be at a club that is part of the DA.
Mid-tier youth players: This is the vast majority of “travel” or “club” players. Whether you like it or not, your child/team/players are only mid-tier. Despite whatever verbiage is on the club website, the club is only a mid-tier club in terms of level of competition. That does not mean that the coaches are not great (or even among the best in the area). It does not mean that what they do is not meaningful (in fact, I could argue the opposite). It simply means that the level of the players is not the highest.
Introductory/Lower-tier: This is what is usually deemed “recreational.” These are the players who do not take it particularly seriously and do not want to allocate too much time, but enjoy playing and sign up for an 8-week season every fall and/or spring. This is the largest demographic of youth soccer player in the United States.
How Youth Clubs Currently Interact
As I pointed out, not everyone in the youth soccer community is honest with themselves and will admit the level of their organization. It seems as though everyone is trying to be the highest-level. And just like the situation that the IOC is avoiding by accepting a lower-tier role, virtually every youth soccer club in the United States has diluted talent. All the best players are not playing with and/or against each other. Although some clubs have established themselves as higher-level clubs and are part of the DA, there are other local clubs in the area who discourage high-level players from joining such teams and recruit them to their own, mid-tier organization.
It doesn’t stop there. We also have lower-tier/introductory level programs pretending to be mid-tier (and sometimes high-level) organizations. For example, I once came across a local soccer organization that has been around since the 1970’s. Forever, they were the only program in the area. They were a traditional “recreational” program – 8-week season, volunteer parent coaches, etc. It seemed like every adult in the community used to play for that organization at one point, and had a positive experience. After all, this organization has been really good at providing this experience. One day several years ago, a new organization was formed to serve players who wanted something else – a “travel” program. Up until this point, players who wanted this kind of experience would leave to play in another community that offered it. But now kids had a local option – happy day! But of course, the original “rec” program hated the competition and decided to create a travel program themselves. However, they did not really know how to operate such a program like the new club did. So, to a trained eye, the quality of experience between the organizations was clear – especially since the “rec” organization had mostly untrained, uneducated coaches (although likely well-intentioned). However, the “rec” club has inevitably been able to retain some quality players over the years, while the organization with quality coaching and programming has diluted talent from what it should be. Today, the “new” club described here is part of the DA, while the “rec” club not only has a poorly-run travel program, but also has a third, “higher-tier” travel program to try and compete with the DA teams – still coached by under-qualified coaches. Also today, the “new” club had instituted a rec program, and there are at least two other clubs in the area who have created programming for both rec and travel players. This is an 8 or 10-mile radius, maximum. Talk about diluted talent!
How Youth Clubs Should Interact
Let’s take the example described above. We have four clubs in an 8 to 10-mile radius, all attempting to provide programming for at least two levels of players. Each club has some truly high-level players on their teams, while also hosting some lower and mid-tier players. There is a clear line between them as to who has most of the higher-level players and who has most of the mid-tier and lower-tier players. It is also clear which club is best at serving each level. Here’s what it should look like:
There should be three clubs: one lower-level/introductory/rec organization, one mid-tier “travel” club, and one high-level club. They should all work together to serve every soccer player in the area.
Nearly every player who starts out in soccer begins in a rec program. Remember, this is also the largest demographic. The rec organization should serve these players as they have done so well for many years. If a player wants a more involved experience, this club should pass them on to the mid-tier program. This is the largest demographic of “travel” or “club” players. Then, if a player shows promise or wants to truly strive for their highest level, they should move on to the higher-tier club, and the mid-tier club should happily encourage them to do so.
In this situation, we have all players being served appropriately, and all organizations doing what they do best. Also, as I pointed out, the numbers of players at the lower and mid-tier programs (which are the programs losing players upward) are the largest two demographics, which means that they can be financially viable even though they bring in less revenue per player. So now, instead of competing with each other and devaluing the soccer experience for everyone, these organizations are creating a healthy, appropriate, and happy experience for players, parents, and themselves.
Youth Leagues Are No Exception
Just like youth clubs, youth leagues are often in competition with each other, diluting the talent everywhere. Every time one organization creates a league to serve higher-level players, another organization creates a competing league (see the DA and ECNL as a national example). Which league are the highest-level teams supposed to play for? Inevitably, teams will have to choose, which means both leagues will have some truly high-level teams, as well as some mid-tier teams. Now neither league is truly a high-level league.
Just like clubs, instead of every organization trying to have a league for every level, they should work together and have one organization provide competitions for certain level(s) and another for other level(s). This way, we have all teams playing against appropriate competition and traveling the shortest distances possible. And again, the number of overall teams in an area will remain the same, so the money can still be divided in a way that allows each league to be financially healthy.
So although the Olympics may not be the highest level of competition for international soccer, our kids can still learn something by watching, and we adults can learn something about being honest with ourselves, putting our egos aside, and working together for the betterment of the sport as a whole.