In Brazil, soccer (futebol) is so beloved that it's often referred to as alegria de povo, translated from Portugese as the "joy of the people." This suggests the deep and organic connection the people of Brazil feel with soccer, a sport that can be played almost anywhere (street, sandlot, grass field) with almost any size ball. You just have to be able to control it, pass it and get it in the net. Notwithstanding the results of this last World Cup, the relentless love of the Brazilian people for soccer has, not surprisingly, produced multiple World Cup victories (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002) and world-class stars (Pele, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho). In other words, Brazil is the New York Yankees of soccer.
How can other countries generate such success? And more specifically, how can the U.S., king of so many other sports, elevate its game to world championship class? Soccer has to be "the joy of the people." Enter Ted Kroeten. Kroeten is a Minnesota soccer legend, a former professional soccer player, former head coach at St. Paul Blackhawks (the oldest soccer club in Minnesota) and now the founder/leader of Joy of the People, a soccer non-profit based in St. Paul. Kroeten has a distinct philosophy, developed over his 30 years of soccer experience, that to produce champions you need kids playing early and often. And if you want kids playing a lot of soccer, they need to have fun.
Does this sound radical? It shouldn't. But the soccer culture in our country inevitably has focused kids on elite traveling teams, wins and championships, with fun and individual development the big losers. In Brazil, when practice is over, the kids keep playing for hours at a time (like pickup basketball). How often do you see U.S. kids wildly playing soccer away from parents/coaches/leagues? According to Kroeten, that's what you need to see. Lots of kids with lots of touches on the ball because they love it. That's what leads to the Gladwellian 10,000 hours of excellence.
Soccer at Joy of the People thus is as much a social mission as a soccer program. Keep the focus on the kids and their personal development, let them have fun freely with various size balls and surfaces, and the results will come. Focusing on elite team victories drives people out of the sport when, inevitably, they can't make it to the next level. Conversely, if soccer is the joy of the people, they will keep playing after practice, and they will keep playing when they're adults.
Kroeten's statement of purpose says it right: "At [Joy of the People], we believe that soccer should be inclusive, fun, creative, and cooperative long before it becomes competitive. Through the patient building of skills, kids are allowed to accept and expand on each challenge, growing their love of the game, discovering the joy of play, joy of friendship, joy of creativity, and the joy of the people." This is a rare, and commendable, form of leadership in sport. And keep your fingers crossed for the U.S team in 2014 (in Brazil!).