by Ian Plenderleith
The German soccer federation (DFB) finally cleared out its old and very possibly corrupt leadership at the end of last week. It elected a new President, Bernd Neuendorf, who is promising cooperation instead of conflict with the Bundesliga. There are now five women representatives on its 15-member board, one of whom — former player Celia Sasic — will be responsible for diversity and equality.
Just as important for the future were the confirmed reforms to the playing structures of youth soccer.
Up until now, German amateur clubs have stuck to the form of 6- and 7-a-side games from age groups U-7 through to U-11. Although games at the U-9 and U-7 levels officially have "no results," the unofficial emphasis is still far too high on which side has scored how many against which rival club. Some coaches keep their own league standings in a spreadsheet. The pumped-up theater on Saturday morning is all too depressing and familiar — scenes I also saw played out for several years while coaching in the USA. Two goals with goalkeepers, four or so dancing, gesticulating coaches, and several dozen ululating parents way too invested in the sporting performances of their offspring. Fun and freedom for the young players trying to enjoy their hobby? Not so much.
Across Germany over the past few years, though, several regions have been trialing Funino. You may have heard of its hardly revolutionary idea to give kids equal playing time, with the emphasis on enjoyment, plentiful ball contact for all players, and so many goals that not even the most ambitious Dad will bother counting how many times his putative Messi has stuck the ball between the posts. Games at U-7 and U-9 level will be two- or three-a-side, with four goals and no goalkeepers. At U-11, teams will be up to 5-a-side, transitioning to more organized 9-a-side play at U-13 level. All players will be guaranteed equal playing time. No one will be keeping score.
The plan is to lose fewer young players because they are either excluded from the team roster on game day, or because they are marginalized during training and on game days by more combative and precocious teammates. The stress is on enjoying soccer, rather than being so discouraged that you give it up by the time you've reached your 8th birthday. Because of too much pressure caused by too many parents and coaches yelling instructions, when the only they words you should be hearing are, "Get out there and enjoy yourself!"
At the age of 10, I'd yet to play a proper organized game, and had never been the beneficiary of a coach's doubtless valuable guidance. Certainly, I became a better all-around player once I'd received tuition on soccer's basics and tactics during my formative years. But I'd learned to make my own decisions, and my own mistakes, long before that. Most important of all, I was besotted with soccer in a way that a few insane adults on the touchline were never going to spoil. In later years, while playing on my U-15 club team, we'd mimic the louder, more unhinged parents behind their backs and wonder what on earth was missing from their lives that they felt compelled to make such a spectacle of themselves every weekend.
It now only remains for a date to be set for the final implementation of Funino across Germany. Some dissenters are darkly forecasting that coaches will set up unofficial leagues to counter the initiative. I wish them luck with that. In fact, it would be fascinating to see which setup ends up producing the better players and more developed young men and women in the long run. As I was forced to bellow — and not for the first time — at a clutch of disruptive parents at a U-13 game I was reffing last weekend: "This game's for the boys, not for you." Please just let them run and have fun, and keep your useless noise to yourself.