Monday, April 21, 2003

Pro Dream Put in Perspective

The London Free Press -- April 21st 2003
By Kathy Rumleski, Free Press Sports Reporter

The world's most popular game has certainly been enjoying a lot of great press, especially after the wildly successful World Cup last year in Asia. Soccer continues to grow -- locally, provincially, nationally, worldwide -- and many Canadian kids dream of playing professional soccer. Hockey doesn't have the monopoly on their dreams like it once did. But there's a downside to the multi-billion-dollar industry that is coming to light as clubs everywhere seek the next superstar. Agents hunt voraciously for kids, even operating on the Internet. A lot of the teenagers that get sucked into the system are from the developing world. Most kids' dreams usually end in despair. Brazilian soccer star Pele, who many regard as the greatest footballer of all times, described it as "the slave trade." Kids under the ages of 16 are brought in from Brazil, Argentina and many African countries as potential players in European leagues and then dumped when they don't make the grade. It was refreshing, therefore, to hear Antonio Saviano speak recently. The North American co-ordinator for the soccer school of Italian Serie A club Perugia was in London recently to sign an affiliation agreement with London United Competitive Soccer Club. "To be honest," was a phrase he used frequently. Speaking superb English, Saviano made it clear finding a diamond in London is unlikely. But he chose his words carefully. Saviano didn't want to take away a player's hope, either. "Maybe one becomes a professional player," Saviano mused as he talked to a roomful of London United players. Maybe. Maybe not. For Saviano, what is more important than signing someone for Perugia is developing the players on and off the field, a cliche though it has become. One of his favourite examples of what the sport can do is how it can give boys and girls lifelong friendships with people around the world. He took a group of American players to Italy for a tournament a couple of years ago, which turned out to be a great experience for all involved. "They are still writing letters and e-mails with Italian players. We lost every game," he said with a laugh. "But what they brought back, they will never forget. If you ask them what was the score, they probably don't even remember." Part of the London United agreement includes an exchange program, invitations for elite players to attend soccer school tryouts, official Perugia uniforms, a coaches' workshop and an annual meeting involving all of Perugia's affiliated clubs in Italy in December."Am I saying I'm here to offer the best you can find? No. But I can tell you the system we have in place can offer something good," said Saviano, who is based in Wilmington, N.C.


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