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The next Messi may be training at this youth soccer academy

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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.”

USMNT Gold Cup 23-man roster leaves some questions

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We have Bruce Arena’s 23-man United States men’s national roster for the Gold Cup, and there are more than a few surprises left out of the bunch.

Often a chance to experiment, those who thought this year’s Gold Cup roster would be one aimed at reclaiming glory with authority may be surprised to see the status quo.

Jurgen Klinsmann brought most of his big guns to the 2015 party — which didn’t go well for Brad Guzan and Co. — but Arena will roll into this summer’s tournament without most of his big names. There’s no Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey, nor Jozy Altidore.

Those aren’t huge surprises, though who Arena neglected from his original 40-man short list is a bit of a shock to the system (Players can be called into the mix after the group stage, which is a fairly simple affair for the USMNT to navigate versus Panama, Martinique, and Nicagarua).

FC Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez didn’t make the batch of backstops, odd given his one-time switch to the USMNT from Mexico. That made him automatically cap-tied to the U.S., but Arena is going with Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, and Bill Hamid in a trio that fails to impress. Hamid does have a big crowd of fans who’d like to see him get a chance to assert himself as the future, and hopefully either Johnson or Hamid finds time between the sticks against a serious opponent like Panama. No surprise that Tim Howard and Joe Bendik didn’t leap into the trio.

We’ll ignore the omission of Danny Williams for the most part considering he was absent from the 40-man list, but he must have said something seriously awful to Arena or someone at U.S. soccer.

The group of forwards leaves little to complain about, as Juan Agudelo and Dom Dwyer very much deserve their chances to compete for playing time with Sounders star Jordan Morris, but the midfield provides some head-scratching. Gyasi Zardes may be a longtime Arena favorite, but the Galaxy man has been ice cold in MLS. The 25-year-old has a single assist in almost 1000 minutes of play this season, and that came back on April 8. Tommy McNamara has not lighting the league on fire and Chris Pontius and his six assists are 30 years old, so much of the grief should be directed at the 40-man again, but Zardes has to embrace this opportunity. And maybe it’s a way to help the Galaxy and Zardes get a little mojo.

As an aside, Wil Trapp is among leaders in several MLS passing stats, which leads me to believe Arena is going to play Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta a ton and doesn’t see much of a need for Trapp in this tournament, not ever.

Defenders Steve Birnbaum and Jonathan Spector were not rewarded with looks, though Graham Zusi was included in what must be an arm reaching out for USMNT experience. Birnbaum is leading MLS in aerials won per game and Spector is by far Orlando’s top rated player since returning from England. Spare a thought for Matt Polster, who has been decent since returning from a knee strain. This is nothing against Zusi, a consummate professional who won’t kill the team by any means and will be an tremendous asset in leadership.

Report: German publication has full FIFA corruption report

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The unedited 2014 report into World Cup bidding published by Michael Garcia has been ‘leaked’ into the press by German publication Bild.

FIFA had released a 42-page version of the report that claimed to clear corruption allegations against Qatar. This “suppressed” report is over 400 pages.

Garcia quit his job as investigator with the FIFA ethics committee in 2014, saying he believed progress in reforming FIFA had slowed considerably.

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Bild said it will publish more information and the full report on Tuesday, but the BBC notes a couple interesting facets of the initial release:

  • “Three Fifa executive members were flown to a party in Rio in a private jet belonging to the Qatari federation before the vote for 2018 and 2022 hosting rights.”
  • “Bild’s report includes details of a $2m (£1.6m) sum allegedly paid to the 10-year-old daughter of a Fifa official.”

Before you overreact, the 10-year-old is an incredibly gifted footballer.

The reporter who filed the story says the report shows no proof of a bought bid, but that it is like “a puzzle.”

Giggs has “to put up with” no managerial interviews

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How much is playing experience worth to a manager?

Comments from Ryan Giggs have us contemplating that question as the legendary Manchester United man wonders why he hasn’t gotten a shout to manage a Premier League squad.

Giggs, 43, says he’s only spoken with Swansea City regarding a managerial spot since his 2014 stint as interim boss of Manchester United. That’s surprising given the Welshman has been linked with seemingly every job in the British Isles.

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“I spoke to Swansea. It didn’t work out. Because I have said I want to go into coaching and management every job that comes up I am linked with..and then I miss out on the job without having spoken to anyone! That’s frustrating, but that’s football. …“I have done the apprenticeship I have just not done the real thing yet.” (Manchester Evening News).

With respect to his on-field prowess, which at times was nearly peerless, should players like Giggs really be surprised when they don’t get top-end offers? Given the big money nature of the Premier League, why should any club trust it’s future to an unknown?

Patrick Vieira was a heck of a player but started his time in the first chair by going abroad to New York City FC. Even Paul Clement gave Derby County a go before getting a look at Swansea last season.

Now Giggs will probably point to fellow Wales and Manchester United alum Mark Hughes, who was named to Wales and Blackburn posts straight out of his playing career.

But for every story like that, there’s Steve Bruce working for Sheffield United in the old Division One, or Jaap Stam going into the Championship with Reading and having some success in building his name. On the negative side, there’s Gary Neville being thrust into a La Liga role without First Team experience.

So while there’s no guarantee that Giggs isn’t beating down the doors of openings in lower leagues, it seems more likely that he has the option of continuing to wait for someone to bet on his name and potential in the Premier League, or to go for any number of jobs in the lower tier to prove his mettle. There’s risk there, too, to be sure, but he’ll be more easily forgiven for failure in a lower spot than in a higher spot. But from the outside, it’s not something Giggs has “to put up with,” rather a choice.

And to his credit, Giggs feels his work in acquiring his coaching licenses while a player and studying under Louis Van Gaal should be enough for a gig. He’s also fine waiting, according to the article, which is totally acceptable (not that he’s looking for our approval). But we’d love to see former players like Giggs at another squad.

Chelsea sells Traore to Lyon for $11 million

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Chelsea has officially sold exciting attacker Betrand Traore to Lyon.

Traore, 21, spent last season on loan at Ajax, helping the club to the UEFA Europa League Final.

The 40-times capped Burkina Faso winger scored four goals in 16 appearances for Chelsea in 2015-16, and has 22 goals in loan seasons to Vitesse and Ajax.

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The fee is said to be more than $11 million. Traore joined Chelsea’s academy in 2010 after coming up with Auxerre.

Chelsea will earn 15 percent of any future sale of Traore, and also have the right of first refusal should another team make an offer for the attacker.

Lyon currently has held onto Alexandre Lacazette, and has Nabil Fekir, Memphis Depay and captain Maxime Gonalons amongst its stars. Adding Traore will only help the club’s ambitions in Ligue 1 as well as the Europa League.