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Q & A with Phil Nielsen

Coaching Soccer, Studying Economics in Brazil

Team Chicago Brasil (Phil Nielsen stands at far right, second row)

Nielsen with his team members

On the beach in Rio

Smith head soccer coach Phil Nielsen recently spent four months in Brazil coaching kids in Rio de Janeiro, teaching English to his players and traveling with a professional team. Nielsen, who has coached soccer at Smith since 2000, coordinated the trip as a way to explore his twin interests in soccer and international economics. “In both those areas, Brazil offers many interesting examples to be studied,” he says. Nielsen received his bachelor's degree from Lyngby Business College in Denmark and a master's degree in economics at the University of Detroit-Mercy.

Nielsen worked with the coach and founder of Team Chicago Brasil, one of the only girls' and women’s soccer clubs in Rio, which provides training and competition opportunities for girls and women in some of the city’s poorest favelas.

Nielsen recently answered questions about his trip for The Gate.

The Grécourt Gate: What specifically did your trip to Brazil consist of?

Phil Nielsen: The two main parts of my trip were a nine-week stay in Rio de Janeiro coaching soccer five days per week with Team Chicago Brazil, and a two-week internship with the professional club Cruzeiro in Belo Horizonte. In Rio, each week usually consisted of at least two to three beach soccer practices or games, and at least two to three regular soccer practices or games. I helped coach in the Rio de Janeiro State Championship in both U-20 “Futebol de Campo” (which is regular soccer—teams of 11 players) and the Rio de Janeiro State Championship in beach soccer. My girlfriend and I also provided English lessons to the players two or three times per week.
In Belo Horizonte, I spent two weeks at Cruzeiro's “Toca da Raposa I” training center, where I lived among the professional youth players, and observed the daily practices and weekend games of the four youth teams. Cruzeiro is one of Brazil's biggest clubs, and it is known for being one of the best clubs in terms of youth development. Three current Brazilian national team players came from Cruzeiro. I usually watched several training sessions per day and had extensive conversations with the coaching staff about tactics, fitness training, sports psychology, and youth development.
The Gate: What did you learn from the experience?

PN: I learned a tremendous amount on this trip, specifically about the unique Brazilian approach to soccer and life; the playfulness you find throughout Brazilian culture, even if it's a matter of life or death for the local, state, or national psyche; the constant encouragement to be creative, show personality, and to work on your movement and form. People think that all Brazilians are born greater soccer players, dancers, singers, and musicians, but I found it be to more a product of nurture than nature. Everyone is constantly encouraged to express themselves in these forms. Fans there get very upset if a player just tries the safe option. No kid wants to grow up and be a goalkeeper or a central defender. They want to be in a position to dazzle with their skills on the ball, and they want to score breathtaking goals.
In Brazil a lot of time is spent on developing proper coordination—having proper coordination and balance while running, jumping, turning and striking the ball. Again, people think Brazilians are born with this, but they actually train it far, far more than we do in the U.S. And the same goes for developing the proper technique and skills. Obviously, I also learned a lot about the Brazilian society and culture in more of an economic and political sense. I learned to appreciate the awesome issues facing the Brazilian society.
The Gate: What are some differences between the way soccer is played in Brazil and in the U.S.?

PN: In Brazil, soccer is played in a way that allows the individual player to express him or herself. What in the U.S. we would call showboating is an integral part of Brazilian soccer. Players are always attempting the most audacious moves, and it is better to fail while attempting this than to not try at all. The enthusiasm and alegria (happiness) is always present, and coaches actually try to bring that out in practice by having special rules giving an advantage to the team that shows the most enthusiasm and alegria.
And the players are far more soccer-savvy there. They understand the game in an intricate way that very, very few American players do. This is obviously due to the fact that they constantly watch and imitate their heroes. Our players rarely watch soccer, but Brazilians are always watching, analyzing, talking about, and copying the professional players.
The Gate: In what ways does soccer affect the lives of inner-city kids in Brazil?

PN: Soccer is the most important thing in Brazil. It is the only truly unifying aspect of an extremely diverse people, both ethnically and socio-economically. Your local team and the Brazilian national team are the two most important things next to your immediate family. Everyone follows these teams—men, women, the elderly, children—regardless of whether they have ever played soccer or even been to a soccer match. If you are born into a Flamenguista family (fans of the Flamengo club from Rio), which half the people in Rio are, you will be a die-hard Flamenguista till the day you die.
So for the inner-city kids, soccer is a passion and an escape from their daily troubles both when they are spectators and when they play the game. For many boys in Brazil becoming a professional player is the only real opportunity to climb the socio-economic ladder, so a lot of time and effort is directed toward that goal. For the girls soccer is not about making it out of poverty, but rather about getting the opportunity to experience the same level of excitement and escapism as the boys have. And it's about being allowed to copy the moves and goals of their heroes in the stadiums and on TV.
The Gate: How will your experience in Brazil affect your coaching at Smith?

PN: There is no question that my experience in Brazil will have a positive effect on my coaching at Smith. I have returned with a newfound excitement and passion for soccer and for coaching. The Brazilian spirit is clearly present, and I hope to be able to translate that into better training sessions, which in turn should translate into better players and a better team—but equally importantly, into a happier and more creative team.
Tactically, I have also picked up a few new nuggets. That is the main reason why it is so important for coaches to take developmental trips like this—they provide you with new and different perspectives on coaching and how the game should be played.
The Gate: Do you have similar trips planned for the future?

PN: My hope is to take the [Smith soccer] team to Brazil next May, and then go back for a two-month stay in the summer of 2008 or 2009.


8/21/07   Compiled by Eric Sean Weld
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