Volume 76, Number 8 | July 12 - 18, 2006

Travis Wantchekon of Greenwich Village, center, at the Regionals in Virginia

Youngsters are learning bad examples from the pros

By Judith Stiles

After Bobby McCarthy, a good-natured boy from New York City, was airlifted to a trauma center with a lacerated liver and three broken ribs after being tackled in a soccer match, it begs the question, why even didn’t the perpetrator on the other team receive a measly yellow card — a warning — and what is causing such an increase in violent and dangerous play in youth soccer?

For answers, look no further than England’s Wayne Rooney in the World Cup, he who gratuitously stomped Ricardo Carvalho of Portugal in the groin, or Zinedine Zidane and his hard head butt to the chest of Italy’s Marco Materazzi. Or take your pick, and look at the footage of Germany’s Torsten Frings throwing a punch at Argentinian forward Ricardo Cruz in a scuffle after their match was over. Yes, these things used to happen sometimes in the old days, usually behind the referee’s back, but welcome to the world of video and instant replays.

Ironically, Rooney, a young hothead, is revered by many young American soccer players for his great play and his hooliganish ways on the pitch. When Rooney received a red card and was ejected from the England versus Portugal game, afterwards, the TV replayed the stomp a zillion times with almost a ghoulish curiosity, as they did with Zidane’s head butt. Now, budding soccer players, who hang posters of these stars on the walls of their bedrooms, can contemplate this unsportsmanlike conduct, as they ask themselves, “Is this what my coach meant when he told us it is O.K. to play rough and tough?”

Misconduct in pro sports trickles down fast to youth sports and unfortunately permeates the style of play. American coaches sometimes value brutish play over developing foot skills, often because they never actually played the game themselves.

“In the U.S. a lot of coaches look at the athletic aspect of soccer and encourage that, instead of trying to develop technical skills in players, which is harder to teach,” says Ben Boehm, a former professional player and president of BW Gottschee S. C., where McCarthy plays. Boehm adds, “Players are allowed too much physicality and it takes away from the beauty of the game.”

Coach Miguel Brunengo, also from BW Gottschee, notes, “Soccer has always been a rough sport but it was within the rules when I was a young player. It has definitely gotten worse.”

The flipside of dirty tackles in youth soccer is another kind of foul play, which is faking injury, better known as “diving.” Players purposefully fall on the pitch to give the illusion of being fouled, hoping to be awarded a penalty kick or get an opponent thrown out of the game. Witness the so-called role models in the World Cup and the plethora of diving, rolling and writhing on the ground, before bouncing back to play within minutes. In New York City, 14-year-old girls in a well-known Y League soccer club were taught how to dive and were encouraged to feign injury by the owner of the club, in order to slow down the play, or trick the referee into calling a foul. Ridiculous diving and gratuitous rough play have discombobulated the standards of referees so that there is little consistency in their calls, resulting in tiresome interruptions to the natural flow of the game.

Several weeks ago, Bobby McCarthy was exuberant, on cloud nine, to have his 16-and-under team win the State Cup and then go on to compete in the Regionals in Virginia. However, in one vicious tackle, one moment, his opponent snuffed out his joy with a life-threatening injury. After McCarthy left the Regionals on a stretcher, the referee declared “Play On!” as the games continued, without McCarthy’s assailant being ejected from the game. That was a dark moment in the Regionals. However, on an adjacent field, Greenwich Village footballers Andres Fernandez, Travis Wantchekon, Christian Johnson and Nathan Miller proceeded to help their Gottschee U-13 team win five straight games to handily claim the Region 1 Championship title for New York City — and they did it without dirty fouls and diving.

Five-foot-tall Wantchekon, who is known for his speed and agility, had no problem winning the ball consistently from the F. C. Delco players, such as Alex Beattie who is 6 foot 4, and towered over Wantchekon like a redwood tree. Miller deftly placed himself in front of the net to catch a cross as he one-touched the ball into the net, scoring early in the first game. Johnson, a standout midfielder, scored from the 35-yard line, beating the Boston Bolts and advancing his team to the semifinals. But it was Fernandez who really set a good example of skilled, yet aggressive play. As a gifted sweeper, he made clean tackles on the ball, not the player, that repeatedly kept the opponents from scoring.

Goalkeeper Johnny O’Hara, who also took a gratuitous hard kick to the knee after he made a save, insists that it is not just luck that helped them win the Regionals.

“Our coach, Miguel Brunengo, has taught our players to keep the ball on the floor and play a quick, passing game.” Brunengo, who has won three State Cups with this team, and then the prestigious Regionals this month, emphasizes developing skills and teamwork over brute force on the field.

Cream rises to the top, and in two or three World Cups from now, these players will be old enough to represent the U.S.A. in international matches as the cream of the crop. Hopefully, they have learned from Brunengo to emulate the great skills and creativity in a player like Zidane, and not the head butting, which only leaves an ugly stain on the sport.

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