In Pretoria, I began to wonder how youth football got so complicated. In Guadalajara I began to wonder how football became so corporate. In Amsterdam, I began to wonder how talent development turned so political. As my responsibilities with professional clubs worldwide expanded so did my concerns. The seduction of elite football could not satiate my desire to see pure development in play.
I continued to wonder.
“Wisdom begins in wonder.” – Socrates
At a pizza parlor in Seattle an answer emerged.
“Nobody really focuses on player development, Beane. It’s too hard given the pressures at hand,” a colleague from the Pacific Northwest explained.
A few pepperoni slices later, I realized that time was pleading. Until that moment I was listening but I was not heeding the call to action. On a napkin I would scribble my own talent code. I would envision coaches without distraction who trained for one noble reason – to maximize the talent of young athletes. I would draw a training ground, a classroom, and a blazing sun shining down upon a pure process. I would doodle a dream.
I would then crumple the napkin and toss it aside for the daily tasks at hand.
“Anything you can imagine is real.” - Pablo Picasso
Johan was my father-in-law and grandfather to my six children. He may have been a legend of the game, but we knew him as “Opa”, the loving patriarch of our little rug rats invading his backyard in the hills outside Barcelona. If ever there was a man who did what he wanted it was my wife’s father. He lived nine lives in one if we offer a fair assessment. He embraced action. When handicapped children needed an ally to play sport, he created a foundation. When athletes were deprived an accommodating education, he fashioned a sport management institute. In every meeting and in every conversation I remember, he was driving forward fearlessly. Perhaps naive at times, he could never fathom why something that made sense and was good for people could not be built in one day. There was no swaying his determination and the demands were high.
Attack, achieve and laugh along the way.
Let the naysayers grumble. Let the curmudgeons frolic in negativity. If there was a vision and it made sense then everyone should be invited to build. Where there was ambition there was possibility and where there was possibility reality could soon follow. That was the way life appeared to a man who kicked a ball about quite well in his younger days.
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” - Eleanor Roosevelt
In Johan’s final months we spoke only once of business. The rest was for family. But in that meeting, which was not an easy one, we spoke of his legacy and who was to lead it. He spoke of his faith in his son and daughters to carry forth the agenda to serve others. He knew my path was about to change and he knew it must. I was to leave the family business to follow a dream deferred. I told him that I was proud of our work together for 14 years (the significance of that number did not escape us). We had built from his basement the Cruyff Institute and from his vision of the game Cruyff Football. But it was to be the last time we would speak as colleagues. The remaining months would be as family tending to the inevitable pains of mortality.
I left that meeting and immediately began to scribble and imagine again. Piles of paper would spill off the table. Notes were no longer discarded but pasted together in a chaotic but purposeful plan. No longer would I dismiss my dream or any crazy thought that would enter my consciousness.
“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” – Langston Hughes
Over and over again, I would wonder. But now wonder became my springboard to dive past inquiry into discovery and onto execution. One call, one concept at a time.
I decided not to ask for someone else to do my bidding. I decided to do. I no longer would grumble about the practices of others but instead focus on the efficacy of my own actions.
TOVO was born.
We launched a solution disguised in the form of a training camp for footballers. We ran an intense and engaging program exactly how we wanted to. We focused on pure talent development. No complications, no politics. Just fifteen boys on a field in Catalonia sweating, laughing and playing intelligent football. Nothing to worry about except our ability as coaches to maximize a player's potential. No starters, no subs. No sideline theatrics. I had learned from my past mistakes and channeled everything we had as mentors into training ambitious young men. My colleagues were extraordinary in their devotion and we cherished every moment on the pitch.
Football is about our best selves. At times we stumble, but we play through indiscretion and we shake hands and share the game with anyone willing to participate. In my case, I would consider football as a means to bring out the best in our young. That would be my most pressing task at hand.
A football dream would not dry up.
I still wonder about football. But now I wonder about how wonderful it will be to welcome young players to a pitch by the sea again. I know that football will be fun again and that we will share all that is brilliant about the game. We will attack, achieve and laugh along the way. And who knows, maybe Johan will smile down upon us as we drive forward fearlessly.
TOVO Academy will become a footballer’s home and pure development will be our greatest goal.