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Spain trip day 3: Youth football at Athletic

BILBAO, Basque Country — Upon arriving in Basque Country, one of the first things that NorCal Premier Soccer learned was about the tradition of Saturday morning youth football, so it was fitting that the first Saturday we spent in the country began with watching a pair of youth games featuring Athletic Bilbao.

Because Athletic plays mostly regional games, their youth teams play up an age group in order to play against better competition and give their players more of a challenge to learn from.

This was immediately evident when the two teams — a U13 for Bilbao and a U14 for their opponents — trotted out with the younger kids of smaller size.

It didn’t matter. The smaller but quicker kids of Athletic controlled the entirety of the game and scored to the point where most of those in attendance lost track of how many the home side placed in the back of the net.

It wasn’t just that they controlled the game though, it was their collective intelligence that impressed the NorCal coaches in attendance.

“The first thing that I noticed was how high the goalkeeper was playing in possession, he was truly a part of the build out phase,” said Billal Samy, Lamorinda SC and Cal Men’s Volunteer Assistant Coach.

As per usual in this part of the world, that theme of possession built calmly through the back into attacking situations in which Athletic attempted and succeeded in exposing their opponents through superior skill.

“I noticed that Athletic Bilbao, along with top youth academy teams in Spain are very involved in the build out phase,” Samy added. “They are possession-oriented teams, but more importantly what I noticed was the ability for players to dominate their one-v-one and one-v-two situations. That in result enhanced the team’s ability to move the ball up the field with fluidity. “

“I think in the US we’re catching on, we’re understanding that possession soccer is not only a matter of style but in today’s modern game possession is required, I think that we’re doing a good job of introducing this concept, but I’m beginning to see here that really the ability for the individual to problem solve more often than not helps the team succeed in the long run,” he added.

Samy plans to introduce more of a similar philosophy upon returning to the states following the trip.

“[I want to] continue to work on concepts that I’m normally training but really begin to emphasize even more in one-v-one domination in one-v-two domination,” he said.

Another aspect noticed by the NorCal coaches may have been overlooked by the majority of the relatively large crowd watch the game — that of the referee.

Only one official took charge of the matches and by looks he appeared to be about a year older than the kids involved, yet there were no problems or complaints from any of the parents and fans watching.

“Not once did the parents yell for a bad call or a mistake from the referee and there were several occasions where there referee made a mistake but it was part of the game,” said NorCal Vice President Paolo Bonomo. “My conclusion is that the main focus is for the kids to play and have fun and develop in the proper way more than thinking about the call of the referee.”

After the games concluded — both big wins for Athletic — NorCal took a short drive to San Sebastian to watch the game at the highest level: Real Sociedad – Valencia as well as some sight seeing.

Coming tomorrow: NorCal’s experience with triple-header of games in three different cities.