Two weeks ago, my friend Mike went to Holland on a two-week vacation to watch a few matches and experience the football culture of the Dutch. Mike is one of those people who will bring his boots everywhere he goes, looking to jump in and play a game of pick-up on the street with anyone. He’s even played games of pick-up outside the Eiffel Tower in Paris. A week before he left for this trip, he had sent me a picture of his new boots that he was excited to use in Cruyff’s home country.
Four days went by and I didn’t hear anything from Mike, which was surprising, because he’s the first person to text me when he plays a great game of footy with someone. I figured it might be due to phone restrictions, but a few days later he texted me:
“Matt this is Mike!! this is my Dutch SIM number. I’ve seen no kids playing on the street here and many people are disinterested in the game.”
This got me thinking about the missing generation of players that caused the Dutch National Team to miss out on the World Cup finals in Russia. You can only rely on the brilliance of a 30+ year old Robben and Sneijder for so long without young players stepping up into the void.
The question is, where are those players? What are the larger implications of a lack of street football and a country’s football culture that is stuck living in the glory of the 1970s and 80s?
I found a clue to this question in a new book that I picked up called 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson. He writes,
“Order is not enough. You can’t just be stable, and secure, and unchanging, because there are still vital and important new things to be learned. Nonetheless, chaos can be too much. You can’t long tolerate being swamped and overwhelmed beyond your capacity to cope while you are learning what you still need to know.”
My football brain started thinking…
“Thus, you need to place one foot in what you have mastered and understood and the other in what you are currently exploring and mastering. Then you have positioned yourself where the terror of existence is under control and you are secure, but where you are also alert and engaged.
That is where there is something new to master and some way that you can be improved. That is where meaning is to be found.”
I absolutely love that quote. How could this relate to the Street vs Structured football debate, and what are the implications of leaning heavily toward one side or the other?
Street football is fast, unstructured, chaotic, ruthless. You win, you stay on. You lose, you watch from the stands. You play with players you don’t know, and you have to solve increasingly complex problems with very little information available to you. Your parents aren’t there to demand you get more playing time. You have to fend for yourself. Survive. This is where players develop their distinct personality in the game.
Stuctured football at a youth level is the opposite. It’s a controlled environment. You play against players your own age and ability. You have a training plan provided by your coach, who teaches you about width, depth, tactical superiority, movement, 1v1s, technique, decision making. All are important keys to becoming a top footballer.
What type of player will you become if you have one without the other?
If you have only chaos, you’ll probably pick up bad habits with your technique. You might become overwhelmed by constantly having increasingly difficult challenges thrown at you. You may never have a tactical understanding of the game without the instruction of a coach.
If you only have structure, you’ll miss out on truly testing yourself. How quickly can you solve a problem? Can you try something new on the ball that you saw a 40-year-old grown man do to you last week? Can you win game after game after game and not come off the court? Can you deal with criticism from older, more experienced players who you may not know very well if you play poorly? All are important challenges that players face when playing pick-up football.
Barcelona has been the gold standard for everyone the last decade, but they haven’t produced a world-class player since Iniesta, Messi, and Xavi’s class.
Is it possible that their club rule of no play outside of La Masia is going to catch up with them eventually? Messi is one in particular who played lots of street football in Argentina before he left and went to Europe.
In the United States especially, we have a very structured club environment, and not enough chaos. When I’m in Connecticut, I have to drive 45 minutes to find a good level of futsal with my old teammates in the Portuguese Center in Danbury. There are 13 year-old kids who play with us 25+ year olds, and they manage to hold their own, which is a great experience for them.
The US is investing in all these new GPS and HR trackers, but what we really need is an investment in our football culture. We need new futsal courts to play at, small goals on basketball courts, simple things that could make a huge difference.
Young kids, especially in their younger years, need to be encouraged to play with their friends or try and take on older players for new challenges.
Even if you are a coach of a club team, you can set up a day at the club where the kids come and play unstructured small-sided games. They have to organize it themselves, set the rules, and pick the teams. No adult to coach them or tell them what to do.
Complete freedom in the face of chaos.
This is something we did at one of the clubs I worked at, and sometimes we would jump in with the players to make it more challenging for them and raise the level.
We need a bit more chaos in our football culture.
About the author:
Matt Danaher is the creator and developer of SoccerPulse, an app that allows coaches to monitor how their players are feeling, find the intensity of training sessions, track attendance, and give players feedback on their performance. Click here to learn more.