BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) Benjamin Palandella dribbles around a bigger boy who comes charging at him and shoots to goal with shocking force for a 7-year-old player. Nearby, children jump to head a ball tethered on a rope, tip-toe over hoops and dribble around orange cones.
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The kids training in this concrete court in a Buenos Aires working class neighborhood play for Club Social Parque. It’s the same soccer talent factory where international stars like Diego Maradona, Carlos Tevez and Juan Roman Riquelme polished their skills as children.
Spain’s “La Masia” youth academy may be the famed bedrock of Barcelona’s success and where Lionel Messi started training at 13 when he emigrated from Argentina. But Club Social Parque, a humble youth academy in Messi’s native country, has perhaps produced more world-class players than any other. At least 40 have become major international stars.
During practice, many of the children wore Messi’s Barcelona jersey and dream of becoming Argentina’s next soccer great. The coach often credited for the academy’s success oversees their drills from the sideline.
“At Club Parque, we work a lot on the fundamentals, the technique. We recognize talent from a young age and our eye has been sharpening with time,” said Ramon Maddoni, head scout at Parque and at the Boca Juniors club children’s division. “We’ve discovered more players than La Masia.”
The 75-year-old coach likes to recite the names of the dozens of kids – more than 200 by his count – that he has coached and who went on to play with Argentina’s national team, local and Europe’s top clubs.
He recalls how he promised Tevez that he’d be a world-class striker long before he became a top goal scorer for clubs in England and Italy.
Or how Juan Pablo Sorin would cry when Maddoni would line him up on defense, because he wanted to score goals. Sorin later played left back for Barcelona and Paris Saint Germain, and invited Maddoni on an all-expenses paid trip to Germany to watch him play with Argentina in the 2006 World Cup.
These days, he recites names of new young talent.
“Benjamin is different from the group,” he said about Palandella. “He can pass with his back turned, he uses both legs. I see some of Riquelme in the way he moves the ball. I see some of `Carlitos’ Tevez, in how he uses his hands and leans backward… He’s different.”
After the training game, Benjamin changed into a Barcelona shirt adorned with Messi’s number 10 and continued to kick the ball even after the other kids had gone home. “I want to be like Messi and play for Barcelona,” he said. He likes how the Barcelona star “steps” on the ball, scores and shoots free kicks. Like Messi, “Benjamin is very shy, but he transforms himself on the field,” his father, Gaston Pallandela said.
Former players say that the secret to Parque is Maddoni’s eye for spotting young talent. But also his insistence on practicing skill sets in reduced spaces and imperfect surfaces where kids learn how to react faster, giving them a competitive advantage when they eventually reach large professional fields.
Players stay in touch with him, and often invite him to dinner when they come to Buenos Aires after playing with European clubs.
“I often thought about Parque when I needed to resolve a situation on the field. I’d have these flashbacks of advice from the coach. And you incorporate all of that naturally because you’ve repeated it so many times,” said Cesar Lapaglia, a former professional player for Boca Juniors and Spain’s Tenerife, who played at Parque under Maddoni from the ages of seven to 13.
Club Social Parque was founded in 1949 when two smaller clubs made up of newspaper delivery men and factory workers merged in the neighborhood of Villa del Parque. Today, about 150 children as young as 6, and from all economic levels, train together twice a week and compete on the weekends in “Baby,” a popular soccer division played in small indoor courts.
Some of the academy’s best talent blossomed under agreements to transfer its young players to clubs Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors. The deal with Boca was brokered in the 1990s by then-team president Mauricio Macri, a millionaire businessman turned politician who was elected Argentina’s president last year.
Argentina is home to some of the world’s greatest players, but also corruption. Several generations of soccer bosses, trainers and scouts run the popular, lucrative and often unregulated business of discovering and selling young promises. There are hundreds of clubs like Parque in the capital alone. For the thousands of talented youngsters like Palandella, only a small percentage will become elite players. Some will struggle along the way to overcome injuries. Others will fall to the psychological pressure at home or on the field.
An economic and governance crisis at the Argentine Football Association prompted FIFA to take control from its leadership last year and help pick an emergency panel to manage its affairs. Professional players recently waged a strike over unpaid wages that delayed the local league’s kickoff.
“Unfortunately in this country, there are a lot of extreme circumstances where it seems the mark of happiness or success is all about money, and often, parents associate soccer with this,” said former professional player Lionel Gancedo, who began his career at Parque at age 5. “During this early stage of a young player, it’s critically important that they have responsible people taking care of their development.”
During a recent youth league game played in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, some parents clung to a metal fence and cheered as if they were witnessing the World Cup final. A coach barked orders at their kids on the sideline.
Sitting on the green turf next to him was Thiago Perugini, one of the top young players at Parque. The 12-year-old with long, curly brown hair is so talented that he has was invited that weekend to play with kids two years older than him for another club. On the field, Perugini showed some of the ball control, precise passes and vision praised by Maddoni.
“The environment is very competitive,” said Thiago’s mom, Karina Estrada. “These kids have a lot pressure from all the parents screaming from the sidelines of the field. And even if they don’t have the pressure, the nerves on edge play against them.”
Back home, Thiago has dozens of trophies stacked high in the shelves of his room. He recently transferred to the youth division of San Lorenzo and his parents had painted the walls in the red and blue colors of the club that is beloved by Argentina-born Pope Francis.
A framed picture shows images of “Coco” dribbling and kicking next to similar images of Maradona during moments of brilliance that helped Argentina win the 1986 World Cup. “I’d like to be like Maradona,” he said.
Like Maradona, Thiago is a classic playmaker. He knows that he wants to be a professional soccer player. But what would he do, if he doesn’t end up going pro? After a long silence, he shrugs his shoulders, smiles and answers: “I don’t know.” He trains three days a week with San Lorenzo and Parque, and often gets invited to play up to four tournament games over the weekend.
“The day that he doesn’t want to play anymore, it all ends right here. He has to be a good person and study and he has the support of his parents,” said Thiago’s dad, Diego Perugini, a former lower division soccer player who is a coach at Parque.
“But seeing him play five minutes with the national team would be awesome. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps.”