*The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars*

I found this book by Sebastian Abbot very stimulating, though I wished for a more social-scientific treatment.  The focus is on Africa, here is one bit on the more conceptual side:

But focusing on a young player’s technique still tells a scout relatively little about whether the kid will reach the top level, even when the observations are paired with physical measures of speed and agility.  A study published in 2016 looked at the results from a battery of five tests conducted by the German soccer federation on over 20,000 of the top Under-12 players in the country.  The tests measured speed, agility, dribbling, passing, and shooting.  The researchers assessed the utility of the tests in determining how high the kids would progress once they reached the Under-16 to Under-19 level.  The study found that players who scored in the 99th percentile or higher in the tests still only had a 6 percent chance of making the youth national team.

So what else might you look to?:

They assessed the game intelligence of players by freezing match footage at different moments and asking players to predict what would happen next or what decision a player on the field should make.  Elite players were faster and more accurate in their ability to scan the field, pick up cues from an opponent’s position, and recognize, recall, and predict patterns of play.


Researchers have found that the key ingredient is not how much formal practice or how many official games players had as kids, but how much pickup soccer they played in informal settings like the street or schoolyard.

The implications for economics study and speed chess are obvious.  Finally:

Researchers found that athletes have a 25 percent larger attention window than nonathletes.

Is that true for successful CEOs as well?  By the way, I hope to blog  soon about why human talent is in so many endeavors the truly binding constraint.

This is an interesting Africa book, too.


'a battery of five tests conducted by the German soccer federation on over 20,000 of the top Under-12 players in the country. The tests measured speed, agility, dribbling, passing, and shooting .... The study found that players who scored in the 99th percentile or higher in the tests still only had a 6 percent chance of making the youth national team.'

Too empirical for a useful social-scientific treatment, right?

Even more amusing is that considering that the U20 Mannschaft is very restricted in size (though assured turnover due to age), it is no surprise about the 99th percentile having limited chances to make the team. Leaving aside the question of injury - the only your teenager I knew that was on a development team for a 1. Bundesliga team had several knee injuries, and no longer has any chance at a professional soccer career.

'I hope to blog soon about why human talent is in so many endeavors the truly binding constraint'

Maybe someone should write a book on the topic, explaining why a small group of people deserve all the spoils of success?

Maybe someone should write a book on the topic, explaining why a small group of people deserve all the spoils of success?

Sure, after all, I can't really be bothered to get off the couch and run around throwing a ball. But I deserve at least one percent of Tom Brady's life time winnings. At least.

And in other good news, I should be Gisele Bündchen's husband three days of the year too.

Interesting that football is a team game but you get good by practicing on your own. It is quite hard to do that with other team sports (cricket, baseball etc). The study also showed it is really hard to spot who will make it in sports among many talented youngsters. Sports and high level media positions are different from most other jobs in that the number of top positions is fixed regardless of the supply. If you increase the supply of mechanics for instance wages will fall and more mechanic type work will be consumed and so more mechanics will be employed. Sports teams are fixed in size, and the NYT only needs so many reporters to sell its advertising and so on. So bringing this back to the discussion on whether to pay interns and feeder baseball players, if you do mandate payment almost certainly you are going to reduce the number of interns which, given the difficulty of spotting talent early, means you are going to remove some people who would have made it and make the final product of lower quality.

'but you get good by practicing on your own'

That is not precisely correct - you practice with other people, just not in an organized fashion. Basketball has some similarities this way - 1 on 1, 3 on 3, pick up games, etc.

You can become a decent pitcher in baseball practicing on your own. Throwing a ball at a barn-door for hours was the preferred training method in the 1920s-30s. At least according to old sports novels.

Also later novels (The Brothers K).

"Researchers have found that the key ingredient is not how much formal practice or how many official games players had as kids, but how much pickup soccer they played in informal settings like the street or schoolyard."


Here's a good article by Bruce Sokolove that says there are two basic ways to get to the World Cup final: the Brazilian way with tons of kids playing hooky from school kicking a soccer ball everywhere they go on the street and the Dutch way with the most gifted kids in organized training in which much of the time is devoted to one-on-one drills in which one kid tries to dribble past another kid. Either way serves to give the best youngsters a vast number of touches of the ball.

The worst way of training is the American way where talented kids play a lot of 11 on 11 games where each player is touching the ball only a few minutes out of each hour. And then the best youth players are on travel teams and spend huge amount of times in cars and airplanes not touching the ball with their feet. And they all want college scholarships.

On the other hand, the American system seems to be what American middle and upper middle class parents like for their kids, and so what if we never get very far in the World Cup? We've got a lot of kids running around chasing a ball in the healthy outdoors, which is more fun than the Dutch way, which also generates all sorts of poorly educated cast-offs who don't quite make it to the pros.

And the Dutch still haven't won a World Cup final ...

“And the Dutch still haven’t won a World Cup final”

True. But, they have lost three finals, two of which they should have won, notwithstanding the fact that they were up against the host nation in 2 of those 3. Moreover (with Hungary in the 50s), they are regarded as having one of the greatest teams (70s Dutch national team). They dominated the Germans and lost rather unfortunately in the 74 final. In the 78 final they lost in extra time after having hit the woodwork at 1-1.

Nevertheless the Dutch seem generally healthier and more athletic than Americans and you actually meet a lot more "poorly educated cast-offs" in the US than in the Netherlands.

American middle and upper class parents simply can't afford to let their kids hyperfocus on soccer the way Dutch parents can. A Dutch middle class kid can wash out of soccer and still end up in a very good Dutch university a few years later at a cost of a few thousand Euros a year. American upper and middle class parents see soccer mostly as a path to getting their boy or girl into a good college, and maybe a nice NCAA career that will open doors later on in the business world. Dutch parents see soccer as a path to soccer.

Exactly. What's the utility of having a much larger pool of washouts? It's extremely unlikely that the USA is ever going to win a World Cup.

I disagree that American parents want the American system. It's the system we have, and parents participate, but that does not necessarily equal causality.

There's plenty of concern and unhappiness with our system, but what really drives parent's is fear that if they opt out, their kids will be left behind. Which is true. The system of: travel team, playing-up to your level of incompetence, practice six days a week, suffer over-use injuries, and spend $1,000 each weekend on tourneys is the, ahem, only game in town.

Like many systems we have here in the USA, sometimes the participants look up from the grind and wonder how the hell we ended up here?

Even in my kids fairly latino LA area school, most of the kids prefer playing BB pickup, its more fun. There are no lunchtime soccer pickup games.

Playing informally may be less about the practice time, and more that the kids who are really good seek out pickup games. Just like everything else.

Having been through the club soccer system in LA, the top teams are already not much fun. the kids would really just like to scrimmage all practice.

Or maybe you could do it the German/Italian way (8 World Cup championships between them) - have a first class professional soccer league, and then pick the best players to play on the national team. (Admittedly, the Germans went with a physical conditioning program for Mannschaft players a while ago, but conditioning is not really about talent.)

The entire premise is somewhat wrong, by the way - everybody on a national team is first and foremost a professional player (or prospective one, at the younger levels), and the development of professional players is generally in the hands of the teams. The national level is more involved with putting together a good team - regardless of age - than it is about letting players touch the ball more. It is at the national team level that you do the full size game - the daily exercises play a minimal role however one looks at it. This is why there are so many international friendlies going on right now - the national teams are actually trying to form themselves as a team, not as individual players.

Sokolove's article is about how the Netherlands train youth so successfully that a relatively small population can produce national teams that 3 times have made the World Cup final.

Of course, as you say, the best thing to do to win this summer's World Cup is to get your best players together from around the world and put them to playing as a national team as often as possible.

The Dokolove article is really about the Ajax academy and that is the team I have followed since the days of Cruyff in the early 1970s. Their academy still produces more starters in European football than any other youth system. One of the reasons it succeeds is that youth players know that they have a chance to play for the first team as Ajax do not bring in many transfers to fill out rosters. Contrast this to Chelsea and Manchester City whose rosters do not have any home grown players; all were acquired via transfer. The two best players on the current Ajax team are 18 year olds, Patrick Kluivert and Matthias de Ligt who got their first starts last season when they were 17. Both will likely be sold on in the next two years for €50-60 M. It's too bad that television money has skewed things economically. Each English Premier League team gets about $100M from just television money which is just a shade less than the total operating budget of Ajax!

Yep - professional teams are the basis for soccer success, not national teams.

A lot of the time they're not even touching a soccer ball. Most kids in poor countries are probably kicking a crumpled water bottle or something. Probably the best thing Gates could do for Africa is drop soccer balls from helicopters so kids can play with a real ball.

The same has been said about America’s youth hockey programs, which produce comparatively far fewer NHL players than Canada or Sweden despite our kids playing in as many, if not more, games per year than either. Put differently: Much like anyone who writes really well didn’t learn how to do so mostly in school, hockey talent is developed in the streets, ponds, basements, and pickup games —i.e., by play— then honed by team play.

Bryan Caplan’s take that schooling is like John Gotti—guilty as sin, but everyone’s petrified to fight against it— is just as applicable to our youth sports programs.

US ice hockey follows the same pattern.

The Dutch realized years ago that they couldn’t identify the future stars at a young age and therefore began to not fund elite teams but instead try to improve training for a large cohort of youth players-keep the pool large and let the players sort themselves out(b/c youth sports have a huge dropout rate even among the talented players)- ie not the travel team concept but really develope the youth ref leagues. Additionally, Europeans don’t have as many sports options as the kids in the US- no baseball, lax, American football. The pool of US soccer players is smal for a country of it’s population

Also the American way stinks because it lacks an important ingredient: grassroots passion from the players. From what I can tell the youth farm system is mostly built to accommodate kids from the upper-middle class families who have the resources to shuttle their kids to developmental camps, practices and scrimmages.

It's an excellent way of taking otherwise marginally talented athletes and pretending that they have a shot with the best-of-the-best from the rest of the world. And this way will continue to result in failure.

How can footballing creativity be taught? While many West and North Africans play a lot of street football how many of them have laid or can lay claim to being creative footballers? A few? That is, can creativity be taught? How does one teach possible elite African an "ability to scan the field, pick up cues from an opponent’s position, and recognize, recall, and predict patterns of play?" Even East Asian football has a problem since the region does not produce creative footballers. But for the 2002 World Cup, South Korean has historically suffered because it has footballers who will run all day but have not been not imaginative enough to ignite a visionary footballing revolution. So too for Japan. On the other hand only a few South American and European countries have been able to consistently produce creative footballers: Brazil; Colombia; Spain; the Dutch, and Germany; all have created generations of creative footballers: watch Isco versus Argentina; Argentina herself used to produce creative footballers but that supply chain has run dry for the past decade because all manner of talent has been exported. So, how can footballing creativity be taught? Or can a nation win an important trophy playing Route 1 football?

1. https://bit.ly/2GnNloR (Simon Kuper on Hiddink and Korea)
2. https://bit.ly/2pXNuEq (Isco v. Argentina)

It is interesting for those people pushing the Brazilian recipe for success that the African teams do so badly. They have the largest block of votes in FIFA and so were instrumental in keeping Sepp Blatter in office. But they do not provide a significant amount of revenue for the game. Nor do they produce particularly successful teams.

But then neither does China - which is odd because you would think a Communist one party state with a quarter of the world's population would push for World Cup success.

I assume corruption plays a big role.

As far as Germany is concerned it is worth noting they have a strict "immigration" policy that limits the number of international players the national level teams can employ. Britain does not. The British team is much hyped but extremely mediocre.

There is no such thing as the British football team.

But then neither does China – which is odd because you would think a Communist one party state with a quarter of the world’s population would push for World Cup success.

I got into an internet fight on Quora with a stupid Chinacom, who insisted that China hadn't good soccer teams because the Chinese prefer to invest in education (as opposed to Germany, I guess). China's totalitarian regime invests A LOT in prestige projects (buying famous soccer players, mercilessly training poor youngesters to be Olympic athletes, hosting the Olympic Games, space stations, etc.), but its brainwashed masses swallow the Inner Party's propaganda hook, line and sinker. It is rather depressing.

IMO creativity is linked to sports IQ and some players innately have it. The best example of this is the great Johan Cruyff who played with Ajax in his formative years and was the most influential player of the early 1970s. Lots of players have great physical skills but cannot transcend to the highest level of play. I put little faith in assessing youth players as the overwhelming majority end up either not making it or are just journeymen players. Some countries seem to produce great talents as Marauding Catalan Fullback states. Some of this is a product of well organized national federations that have instituted common training programs (Germany & Spain) while others just have a big pool of players where there is a Darwinian selection (Brazil). Some small countries population-wise produce outstanding players far above what would be expected (Holland, Uruguay and Portugal).

Di maria, Leo Messi, Kun Aguero, Dybala are all craques IMO

France has always had good creative players in my lifetime

Can't disagree re: west Africa, but I happily remember JJ okocha and yaya toure, as well as Drogba

It is interesting for those people pushing the Brazilian recipe

The best athletes in soccer (and baseball and football and tennis) don't think they react; thus, the more games/drills they play, the better their reaction to what's on the field of play. I remember when my godson played youth football, and he was one of the best if not the best athletes on the filed. But he was far from the best player. I described the best players as those who "got it", by which I meant they reacted to what was happening on a play. They didn't think, they reacted. Instinctively. That innate ability to see and react carried on into high school and beyond. Why some have that ability and others don't can't be ascribed to cognition, at least not in the traditional sense. Cowen's reference to speed chess makes sense to me. A player's ability to see and react to what's on the board and his opponent's last move is the same innate ability of athletes in other sports to do the same. I suppose Cowen would argue that the best athletes and speed chess players do think, it's just that they think so much faster than the rest of us. Not unlike a computer that processes an enormous volume of information in an instant. Now that I think about it, Cowen's ability to speed read and respond in an instant to questions may be analogous to the athlete's ability to react in an instant to what he sees on the field of play. Cowen has attributed his ability to having read so much about so many different subjects that it's rare for him to read something or hear a question he hasn't already considered. In the context of an athlete, those who react in an instant do so because they have already seen whatever might occur on the field of play. Practice makes perfect. Or at least it does for those, like Cowen, whose mind processes information like a computer. Wait a second! Now I understand why Cowen prefers bots over people: he's one of them.

I think perhaps what you are calling reaction is actually evidence of pre-thinking. Constant situational awareness and planning.

It's subtle. But instead of relying on some sort of accumulated instincts, players who "get it" are continuous students of the game, particularly on the field. They prepare for every single moment by continuously developing scenarios and plans moment to moment.

I was never a particularly gifted athlete and did not practice very much comparatively. But I have always had a high degree of situational awareness and a fast processing mind. So in sport I was able to exceed my skills limitation with "hustle", which was one part drive and one part anticipation. Which manifested as a micro-second advantage for stealing passes, sensing passing lanes to find the open spot, and getting in position defensively before the other guy got there.

In other words, having fast reactions to get your glove in front of a ball taking a bad bounce is "instinct"; but getting a half-step jump on the ball even as it comes off the bat is planning.

Now, whether or not that incessant high-speed planning process becomes unconscious through habit and practice is I suppose a fair question. But now we're gonna get tangled around the definition of instinct.

Thinking out loud here to develop this idea... what I am getting at is there is mental processing speed, and there is physical reaction speed. Surely both are necessary.

But what may also be required is discipline to be constantly predicting. Which is how you put the other two to good use.

The next soccer superstar is Kylian Mbappé.
You have way more chance to find the next soccer superstars at INF Clairefontaine (the French national high school for the next soccer champions) than in the whole Africa.

You can find the star soccer players in Africa,


You can't bring them in

If they are from

Sh..hole countries.

Is it just me or is the framing of the first stats way off?

Top 1% of 20,000 is still 200 kids. I doubt that the national team is over 50 (and probably closer to 20) — 6% doesn’t seem so unreasonable. That means that 12 of the 20-40 kids on the national team were identifiable in the top 1% under the age of 12? That feels like a clear sign.

The real question to me is how many from the team don’t test in the top 5 or 10 percent at that age.

If you want to go cherry pick the one kid, yeah, that’s going to be near impossible, as being elite is a combination of skills that are hard to quantify at any age, let alone 12: dedication, grit, ability to remain healthy, etc.

... or maybe I’m missing something...

very good point. During a decade, maybe 60 players might make it into the national team, and given a year of birth cohort an average of 5/6.

It goes underappreciated that athletes are the geniuses of our time and more cognitively advanced than the rest of us.

Nice Satire.

VERY underappreciated, indeed. It's not appreciated at all. No one thinks that.

I swapped from playing soccer to mainly playing rugby when I was fourteen. I found that the positional sense required for playing in the back row, in rugby, was much the same as for playing half-back (nowadays "midfielder") in soccer. It turned on 'seeing' what was going to happen next and then next again. That's what the author says too. But you could have had the lesson free from me, at the cost only of hearing all about my best tries, goals, catches, and tackles. (Nothing really comes free.)

At least in part, and with some exceptions, success in international football is related to a non-protestant world view. Team sports in the protestant community, especially the US, are descendants of Cromwell's New Model Army. The most important figure on the team isn't the best player, it's the coach, the leader, the neo-Cromwell. Every individual player is regarded as simply one part of the big machine who must be satisfied with his role in the coach's design.

In the protestant-less world, such as South America, Spain, Italy, parts of Germany, etc. the Cromwellian effect is much less pronounced. Players are encouraged to express their individuality. Team sports are much less regimented and more fluid. This accounts for the failure of NFL experiences on a sustained basis in other countries, where the game is viewed as machine-like and unexciting.

>players who scored in the 99th percentile or higher in the tests still only had a 6 percent chance of making the youth national team.

Yeesh. We all know that Tyler is not a numbers guy, or even a facts guy or a truth guy... but still you'd think he'd be bright enough to realize that the above sentence reveals precisely zero useful information.

Would anyone else like to enlighten him as to why? I'll be back in a few hours and will do it if no one else cares to.

OK. Looks like Rebecca touched on it above, but here you go Tyler.

You really need more than a grade school grasp of statistics if you ever going to comment on... literally anything. Read the sentence again:

>players who scored in the 99th percentile or higher in the tests still only had a 6 percent chance of making the youth national team.

Do your best to realize that if EVERY SINGLE NATIONAL TEAM PLAYER came from the 99th percentile, this statement could still be true. Do you see your problem? All this statement tells you is that the National Team has very few players.

I'll try to dumb it down a little more: what if I told you that people in the 99th percentile of intelligence at elite universities only had a .01% chance of making the Supreme Court? Would you say "Wow, obviously intelligence is not very important for SCOTUS... what else could be at play here?"

I'd have to guess the answer is "probably."

But hey, it's Easter.... gotta have some faith, even in people like you.

Also: what is Iceland doing? That seems to be working.

They have the best organizational set up of any country https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/jun/08/iceland-stunning-rise-euro-2016-gylfi-sigurdsson-lars-lagerback One UEFA certified coach for every 825 people in the country, in contrast England has one for every 11000.

Coaching certification is a bug, not a feature.

A bug that works very well for Iceland apparently.

Modern Family

Sophia Vergara: My uncle used to fix soccer games.

Ed O'Neill: Fix soccer? Pick the ball up and throw it down the field. That's the only way to fix soccer.

Release the data to the public and we’ll see how long the “you can predict anything!” Narrative lasts.

The number of kids that decide to play in every recess, and try for skills in different positions, is of vital importance there. Spain was a historical underperformer as a large European nation, and had a soccer style cruder than even the English. Why did they become a dominant nation? At the time where their golden generation was growing up, the country added 3 new television stations. One wanted budget kids television, so they looked at Japan, which sold cheap programming. A beloved highlight was Captain Tsubasa, about kids that love soccer and are trained by a Brazilian coach that teaches them to love the ball, go with one everywhere, and learn to keep it from the opponent at all times. Add 18 years or so, some Johan Cruyff influence, and Spain has thousands of young players that have ball control skills way beyond what any other European country does, winning three major tournaments in a row.

So Spain owes their titles to kids being inspired by Japanese animators. See something similar in the revival of Go in Japan thanks to Hikaru No Go.

I like this theory too much to analyze it critically.

It is pretty obvious in the early years that the kids with the most informal playing time have the best game skills. I have cross referenced this with my wife the teacher who correlates skills with those kids who play at recess.

I wonder if it's not just number of touches, but something about the informal nature of street play. Choosing to do something versus being told to do it.

I wonder have they studied how many kids also practice particular skills alone at home. Which reflects not just skills, but drive. Some kids go home after baseball practice or pickup games and still throw fifty pitches or hit fifty balls off a tee every night, dark or light, rain or shine. (On their own initiative, not forced by dad). That's a measure of passion.

I also wonder if anyone has studied the impact of having older siblings that play the sport. It seems clear to me that many of the early stars benefit from modeling (I want to be like my older brother), and being pushed (in a supportive environment) by trying to keep up with their older sibs.

Finally, I wonder if watching sports on TV can be a substitute for developing situational savvy.

Yes -- two book posts in one week. This is great, especially as I'd been increasingly wondering (worrying) what happened to "What I've Been Reading."

This post is all about raising the status of John McPhee.


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Hi Amanda
Thanks for the tip.
Hey, if you have trouble making the payments on that loan, give me a call.
Perhaps we can work something out.

No credit check, no collateral, and 2%? Hell, that's better than the US gov't can borrow!

I wonder where Fidelity Loan is getting THEIR money.

I wouldn't expect such a bad misunderstanding of statistics from Tyler Cowen of all people. (see previous comments) Perhaps you should post less, focusing on better quality posts?

The American model for sports is sadly flawed in many ways. Two good books and one article on the topic of youth sports and its norms are:

Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children (Tom Farrey of the Aspen Institute would be an interesting guest for "Conversations with Tyler"):

How Norway Won the Winter Olympics

Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town's Secret to Happiness and Excellence

This book sounds awesome, if nothing else it kinda confirms my biases regarding youth sports in general and youth soccer.

First, I think pushing your elementary and middle school-aged kids to play so many organized sports has quickly diminishing returns and as a means of preparing your kids for elite play as adults to be mostly useless. Some of the best players on my high school's state championship-team as juniors and seniors came out of nowhere compared to what they were as freshman. And some of the best players as freshman either burned out or weren't that good as seniors.

Also, regarding casual pick up games, this is why US soccer sucks. There's no grassroots passion. It's just a bunch of upper middle class parents shuttling their kids to practices, camps and tournaments.

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