I once read an article in a local newspaper about a talented young soccer player who was only fourteen years old. He was asked where he’d like to play in Europe and the boy said either Arsenal or Sporting Lisbon. The truth is that this boy was serious.
He played on the regional team and provincial team so at a young age he had high hopes to continue his soccer career at a higher level. I am glad he set bar high but most young players in North America have no idea as to the complexities of the European soccer system. This blog is not so much a reality check but more to share some information that can be helpful in re-shaping and defining those goals. After all, the clearer a goal the more likely you will attain it.
Your dream: at some point in time each of us have dreams or had aspirations to become a professional soccer player. To do what you love for a living would be the ultimate joy. The additional benefits of being in great shape, being paid well, perhaps being recognized in public and being able to travel are other great perks of the experience. What young soccer players and their parents must know is that most European clubs want to:
(a) train their youth for a minimum of five-seven years before the players move on to the senior team;
(b) sell the player to another club; or
(c) hold the player as leverage for another signing or pick up.
What ultimately happens in most cases (but not all) is that players become discouraged and simply move on from the game of soccer.
There are always exceptions; however, you must be extremely talented and simply be better in all categories than the players growing in their youth system. To make things even more challenging, European clubs can only sign a certain amount of foreigners creating even more competition.
Many people fail to realize that David Beckham signed for Manchester United on his fourteenth birthday. He was also having trials with Man United for the better part of a year prior to signing. Prior to that, scouts had been coming to watch him play in London, England. He spent six seasons in the youth team living and breathing Manchester United football before becoming a regular in the first team. His future, like many other top soccer players, was set in stone from an early age. He had to do the hard work but everything was in place for him to excel.
Remember that soccer is the most popular sport in the world and in Europe and many other parts of the world, there are a lot of divisions and clubs in each country. Playing professionally means you are being paid and can make a living playing the sport. This does not mean you have to sign for AC Milan in order to be a professional. Either way, no professional makes the jump to the AC Milan first team unless they are already coming from another top club.
Making it as a goalie: the reason goalie’s in North America have a better chance of making a club in Europe compared to outfield positions, is they do not need to have the same level of technique developed as outfield players. If a goalie is tall, has an incredible work rate, is athletic and can cut down the angles well then there is a much greater chance they can crack the line-up. Goalie’s also tend to have longer careers than outfield players. I have played with a number of goalies that have gone on to play professionally while in their twenties. They have joined first and second division clubs in Norway, Croatia and France. Though they are not playing in the Champions League they play week in and out in front of thousands of fans, are being paid well and are living their dream. Now that they are on the radar, their respective national teams are scouting them. Who knows what’s next for these individuals?
Unfortunately for outfield players, they need to be technically perfect by the age of about twelve if they wish to sign for a top club. The European club does not want take a twenty year-old and spend time developing them.
The chances of making a men’s team after switching from a team in North America are essentially zero. The only way a club would ever take a player once they are a senior is if they are technically perfect (although if that were the case they would have been picked-up). Even Landon Donovan of the LA Galaxy struggled to make an impact in the German Bundesliga (only to have a more successful stint with Everton in the 2009-2010 season.
This blog was not to crush your dreams but to re-focus them and look where you can excel most. If you truly want to play professionally in Europe there are several steps that must be taken first and the biggest one is to get in with a top club between the ages of 12-14. Getting in can be difficult as a foreigner as there are already many local players in Europe that have the same dreams. There are rare exceptions to signing with a club after this i.e. Owen Hargreaves signed age 16 with Bayern Munich.
If you are in your late teens then perhaps you can look at receiving a partially paid or full scholarship through an American College. The long term goal may always be to play professionally but this could be a great stepping stone to playing at a higher level. I believe in setting the bar high. Having big dreams is the way to go but like anything it’s best to fully understand what you and how you can best attain it.
This is obviously a longer discussion in itself so I will write more on this topic in the near future.