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Soccer in Bethany, USA

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


Organisation is the key to promoting the grassroots game.
Soccer in the USA is getting bigger and bigger, particularly at the grassroots level. To try and understand this growth got right to the heart of grassroots football in Bethany College, West Virginia, where we spoke with Dr John Cunningham ("JC to my friends"), a coach with over 30 years experience.
"The number of youth that are playing soccer in the United States has quadrupled in the last 10 years and particularly for women it is absolutely the fastest growing sport." In fact, "the number of kids playing soccer in this County is now higher than the number playing (American) football."
JC started the Bethany College Varsity Men's Soccer Program in 1968, and until recently was Head Coach of the men's soccer team. He has witnessed the programme grow apace with the general popularity of the game in the States.
"In the early '70s there was practically no youth soccer in West Virginia - we started with just 32 people. Now, there are over 23,000!" JC believes the experience of Bethany provides a snapshot of the grassroots development of the game throughout the country.
Organisation, organisation and organisation…
The rise in popularity of the game can be attributed to many things. Famous players like Pele and George Best playing in the United States in the early '80s helped to raise the profile of the game. So did hosting the 1994 Men's World Cup Finals and the 1999 Women's World Cup Finals and the huge success of the women's national team, the current World Champions.
However, JC thinks the success of the game at the grassroots level owes itself more to careful organisation and commitment. He believes that these qualities are what have provided the key to success.
"When I started out I knew that the only way the game could succeed was by mirroring the careful organisation of other American sports, including allying the game to the collegiate structure that produces the state's sporting heroes."
Perhaps in no other country is rigid organisation so highly valued. You are very unlikely to see kids playing football in the streets as you are in other countries. Sides are always properly organised and coached, with leagues starting from as early as age five.
Each U.S State now has an organisational body whose hierarchy breaks down in to counties and then local communities. These organisations make provisions for small, relatively unorganised recreational leagues right through to 'travel teams' that will play across the whole state.
Budding players get the chance to cut their teeth through these organisations or from within their school, though organisational rules prohibit a player from turning out both for their High School team and a team outside of school - you must choose one or the other.
Colleges then look at both High School and Travel teams when choosing their players. Whichever route you take, football played up until the age of 18 essentially acts as a feeder programme for colleges.
This is the blueprint for all professional sports in the United States and JC has worked hard to see that soccer follows these lines.
The country has a culture that provides great rewards for success. The careful organisation of the game gives players and their parents the hope that a professional future may lie head. In the meantime it ensures players are coached and properly organised in a safe and supported environment.
With the proper structures now in place JC is confident that soccer can only continue to grow, after all, as he says, "Soccer is the international sport, where you could say basketball is an American sport and cricket is an English sport." And it's soccer's international appeal that has been the main motivating force for JC's 30 years of enthusiasm for the game.


Jon Wilkinson, August 2001


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