Soccer fever swept the nation earlier this summer, as the World Cup was on everyone’s minds. Long the most popular sport in the world, soccer is just starting to gain a genuine foothold in the U.S. Gustavo Szulansky, who founded Super Soccer Stars—a soccer camp with nationwide programs, including one on the East End—and Ben Astin, the Long Island coordinator of Super Soccer Stars, recently discussed the benefits of playing soccer, the success of the U.S. Men’s National Team and the growing popularity of the sport.
How do you get kids interested in soccer? What is the greatest appeal of the sport?
Gustavo Szulansky: Soccer is like horse racing in which we run with a better horse. When we compare soccer to other sports, it’s much simpler and a much more complete sport, as far as challenging yourself, aerobic activity and team play. It’s also a much more democratic sport [where physical differences don’t necessarily give an advantage, unlike] in basketball if you’re tall you have an advantage. Soccer is easy to play—you don’t need any equipment. Just a ball. You can improvise to make goals. And, you’re not going to get your brains crushed [so you don’t need pads or helmets]. Everybody plays all the time, unlike, for example, baseball or softball where you’re only on the field for half the game, or where only the person with the bat gets to play.
What do you attribute to the growing popularity of soccer in the U.S.?
GS: Soccer is a logical sport. If you have a sport that’s easy to play and has simple rules, more people play. It’s a natural progression. When I started [Super Soccer Stars] in 2000, there was much less soccer being broadcasted on TV. Now, NBC is one of the main networks. You can [easily] watch the English Premier League. The exposure to soccer is a lot bigger. Plus, the U.S. national team is doing really well.
The prevailing argument against following soccer in the U.S. seems to be that it moves slowly or that it can end in a tie. What do you say to naysayers?
GS: To a certain extent, soccer is a language that appears foreign in the beginning. The people don’t understand or don’t become familiar [with it]. They get stuck and [to compare to learning a language], don’t go beyond “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me.” It’s a much more dynamic game than other sports. The Mexico and Brazil game [at the 2014 World Cup] was a total thriller; [you were] on the edge of your seat the whole time, and that was a scoreless game. If you don’t understand it, you’re just left with a superficial impression. It’s only a matter of time [until people begin to understand the nuances of the sport]. [It’s like] when I moved to this country [from Argentina] 27 years ago, it was difficult to find a good cup of coffee. Who would have said two decades later you’d have Starbucks, all these specialty shops. [At the time,] coffee was a foreign language. People would look at coffee think it was nothing more than something you bought in a Greek deli. But it became more dynamic.
Growing up, I noticed that many kids play soccer in elementary school, but soon turn to other interests—how do you keep kids interested in the sport?
GS: It’s something that has grown organically. How do we keep them engaged? The Premier division [of Super Soccer Stars] is a step up in terms of training. We get the organic growth. [We’re] building a bridge, from cradle to college. We start pre-soccer when [kids are 12 months old], and for those who want to play in college, the whole structure that is needed is in place. The more paths that prosper, the more teenagers will hopefully play soccer. We’re seeding the ground.
For kids who don’t end up pursuing soccer on a collegiate or professional level, what does playing the sport teach them?
GS: For many of the kids who join us, this is the first organized activity they’re a part of. The benefits are enormous. They learn how to interact with peers, follow directions, wait for their turn. Playing soccer in an organized environment helps with social skills. Soccer is a very active sport, even at the most basic level. We are the best antidote to video games and iPads
How was attending the World Cup? And can you talk about the aftermath of the World Cup and the impact it had on soccer’s popularity?
GS: People are much more aware of soccer now. Even in 1994 when the World Cup was [held in the U.S.], only a limited number of people even talked about it. One of the things that has helped is, not only that the U.S. team did well, but now you have heroes like [U.S. goalie] Tim Howard. A few more heroes like that—U.S.-born players that excel in the European league, that are portrayed in ads—[will definitely help soccer’s popularity]. The sport was always dominant, and now it’s becoming more and more global.
Ben Astin: New York is at the center of the growth of the soccer market. [The metro area] is a multicultural market, and the next generation of immigrant kids are growing up knowing soccer. Now, kids are growing up playing soccer in the play yard. [Like Gustavo said,] all you need is a soccer ball and some space [to play]. The ease of that has prompted more and more people to start to play, and the market is growing very strongly. The World Cup really helps as well.
How does Director of Coaching Mark Wilson, formerly of Manchester United, help the Super Soccer Stars program?
GS: It gives kids a different level of exposure to the game. [He brings] a refinement of soccer coaching techniques. Kids are being exposed to soccer at the maximum level. [We derive our class instruction] from Mark to our coaching staff to the children.
Why did you extend the camp to the East End?
GS: We realized that many of our [New York City] families spent summers in the Hamptons, and they were asking for continuity. It was a natural idea. [A decade later,] we now have eight locations in the Hamptons [spread throughout Quogue, East Hampton, Bridgehampton, Montauk, Sag Harbor, Wainscott, Southampton].
We always try to establish community rules. [We also] do a lot of social work through the Round Star Foundation. We run a program for children with developmental challenges. It’s not just about teaching [how to play soccer], it’s about using soccer and the advantages soccer can bring from a community standpoint. It is a unique tool.
Anything else of note coming up?
GS: We will be starting classes in London, England. How about that—a U.S. company teaching in Europe?
For more info, visit supersoccerstars.com/hamptons-summer-camps.