The next Messi may be training at this youth soccer academy

Benjamin Palandella dribbles around a bigger boy who comes charging at him and shoots to goal with shocking force for a 7-year-old player. Nearby, children jump to head a ball tethered on a rope, tip-toe over hoops and dribble around orange cones.

The kids training in this concrete court in a Buenos Aires working class neighborhood play for Club Social Parque. It's the same soccer talent factory where international stars like Diego Maradona, Carlos Tevez and Juan Roman Riquelme polished their skills as children.

Spain's "La Masia" youth academy may be the famed bedrock of Barcelona's success and where Lionel Messi started training at 13 when he emigrated from Argentina. But Club Social Parque, a humble youth academy in Messi's native country, has perhaps produced more world-class players than any other. At least 40 have become major international stars.


In this March 18, 2017 photo, a player for Club Social Parque catches the ball at the net during a match at the youth soccer academy in a working class neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. "I often thought about Parque when I needed to resolve a situation on the field," said Cesar Lapaglia, a former professional player for Boca Juniors and Spain's Tenerife, who played at Parque as a youth. "I'd have these flashbacks of advice from the coach." (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)


During practice, many of the children wore Messi's Barcelona jersey and dream of becoming Argentina's next soccer great. The coach often credited for the academy's success oversees their drills from the sideline.

"At Club Parque, we work a lot on the fundamentals, the technique. We recognize talent from a young age and our eye has been sharpening with time," said Ramon Maddoni, head scout at Parque and at the Boca Juniors club children's division. "We've discovered more players than La Masia."

The 75-year-old coach likes to recite the names of the dozens of kids — more than 200 by his count — that he has coached and who went on to play with Argentina's national team, local and Europe's top clubs.

He recalls how he promised Tevez that he'd be a world-class striker long before he became a top goal scorer for clubs in England and Italy.

Or how Juan Pablo Sorin would cry when Maddoni would line him up on defense, because he wanted to score goals. Sorin later played left back for Barcelona and Paris Saint Germain, and invited Maddoni on an all-expenses paid trip to Germany to watch him play with Argentina in the 2006 World Cup.


In this Nov. 11, 2016 photo, Ramon Maddoni, head scout at youth soccer academy Club Social Parque and at the Boca Juniors club children's division, poses with photos of himself with professional players Carlos Tevez and Fernando Gago in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Maddoni recalls how he promised Tevez that he'd be a world-class striker long before he became a top goal scorer for clubs in England and Italy. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)


These days, he recites names of new young talent.

"Benjamin is different from the group," he said about Palandella. "He can pass with his back turned, he uses both legs. I see some of Riquelme in the way he moves the ball. I see some of 'Carlitos' Tevez, in how he uses his hands and leans backward... He's different."

After the training game, Benjamin changed into a Barcelona shirt adorned with Messi's number 10 and continued to kick the ball even after the other kids had gone home. "I want to be like Messi and play for Barcelona," he said. He likes how the Barcelona star "steps" on the ball, scores and shoots free kicks. Like Messi, "Benjamin is very shy, but he transforms himself on the field," his father, Gaston Pallandela said.

Former players say that the secret to Parque is Maddoni's eye for spotting young talent. But also his insistence on practicing skill sets in reduced spaces and imperfect surfaces where kids learn how to react faster, giving them a competitive advantage when they eventually reach large professional fields.

Players stay in touch with him, and often invite him to dinner when they come to Buenos Aires after playing with European clubs.

"I often thought about Parque when I needed to resolve a situation on the field. I'd have these flashbacks of advice from the coach. And you incorporate all of that naturally because you've repeated it so many times," said Cesar Lapaglia, a former professional player for Boca Juniors and Spain's Tenerife, who played at Parque under Maddoni from the ages of seven to 13.


In this Nov. 11, 2016 photo, Benjamin Palandella puts on his Barcelona jersey adorned with Messi's number 10 after a training game at the youth soccer academy Club Social Parque in a working class neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. After the training game, Benjamin continued to kick the ball even after the other kids had gone home. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Nov. 11, 2016 photo, a young player steps on a soccer ball during a training session at the youth soccer academy Club Social Parque in a working class neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Club Social Parque was founded in 1949 where today about 150 children from all economic levels train together twice a week and compete on the weekends on small indoor courts. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)


Club Social Parque was founded in 1949 when two smaller clubs made up of newspaper delivery men and factory workers merged in the neighborhood of Villa del Parque. Today, about 150 children as young as 6, and from all economic levels, train together twice a week and compete on the weekends in "Baby," a popular soccer division played in small indoor courts.

Some of the academy's best talent blossomed under agreements to transfer its young players to clubs Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors. The deal with Boca was brokered in the 1990s by then-team president Mauricio Macri, a millionaire businessman turned politician who was elected Argentina's president last year.

Argentina is home to some of the world's greatest players, but also corruption. Several generations of soccer bosses, trainers and scouts run the popular, lucrative and often unregulated business of discovering and selling young promises. There are hundreds of clubs like Parque in the capital alone. For the thousands of talented youngsters like Palandella, only a small percentage will become elite players. Some will struggle along the way to overcome injuries. Others will fall to the psychological pressure at home or on the field.

An economic and governance crisis at the Argentine Football Association prompted FIFA to take control from its leadership last year and help pick an emergency panel to manage its affairs. Professional players recently waged a strike over unpaid wages that delayed the local league's kickoff.

"Unfortunately in this country, there are a lot of extreme circumstances where it seems the mark of happiness or success is all about money, and often, parents associate soccer with this," said former professional player Lionel Gancedo, who began his career at Parque at age 5. "During this early stage of a young player, it's critically important that they have responsible people taking care of their development."

During a recent youth league game played in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, some parents clung to a metal fence and cheered as if they were witnessing the World Cup final. A coach barked orders at their kids on the sideline.


In this Nov. 19, 2016 photo, parents scream as children play soccer at a youth league game on the outskirts of in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Some parents cheered as if they were witnessing the World Cup final as a coach barked orders at their kids on the sideline. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)


Sitting on the green turf next to him was Thiago Perugini, one of the top young players at Parque. The 12-year-old with long, curly brown hair is so talented that he has was invited that weekend to play with kids two years older than him for another club. On the field, Perugini showed some of the ball control, precise passes and vision praised by Maddoni.

"The environment is very competitive," said Thiago's mom, Karina Estrada. "These kids have a lot pressure from all the parents screaming from the sidelines of the field. And even if they don't have the pressure, the nerves on edge play against them."

Back home, Thiago has dozens of trophies stacked high in the shelves of his room. He recently transferred to the youth division of San Lorenzo and his parents had painted the walls in the red and blue colors of the club that is beloved by Argentina-born Pope Francis.

A framed picture shows images of "Coco" dribbling and kicking next to similar images of Maradona during moments of brilliance that helped Argentina win the 1986 World Cup. "I'd like to be like Maradona," he said.

Like Maradona, Thiago is a classic playmaker. He knows that he wants to be a professional soccer player. But what would he do, if he doesn't end up going pro? After a long silence, he shrugs his shoulders, smiles and answers: "I don't know." He trains three days a week with San Lorenzo and Parque, and often gets invited to play up to four tournament games over the weekend.

"The day that he doesn't want to play anymore, it all ends right here. He has to be a good person and study and he has the support of his parents," said Thiago's dad, Diego Perugini, a former lower division soccer player who is a coach at Parque.

"But seeing him play five minutes with the national team would be awesome. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps."


In this Jan. 25, 2017 photo, young soccer player Benjamin Palandella stands with his father Gaston at their home in Buenos Aires, Argentina. "Benjamin is very shy, but he transforms himself on the field," his father said. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Nov. 19, 2016 photo, Thiago "Coco" Perugini controls the ball during a youth league game on the outskirts of in Buenos Aires, Argentina. "The day that he doesn't want to play anymore, it all ends right here. He has to be a good person and study and he has the support of his parents," said Thiago's dad, Diego Perugini, a former lower division soccer player who is a coach at Parque. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

In this Nov. 11, 2016 photo, head soccer talent scout Ramon Maddoni, of Club Social Parque and Boca Juniors children's division, sits on the bench with young player Benjamin Palandella at the youth soccer academy Club Social Parque in a working class neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. "At Club Parque, we work a lot on the fundamentals, the technique. We recognize talent from a young age and our eye has been sharpening with time," said Maddoni. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this March 18, 2017 photo, Club Social Parque players huddle with their coach before a match at the youth soccer academy Club Social Parque in a working class neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The humble youth academy has perhaps produced more world-class players than any other. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Jan. 25, 2017 photo, Benjamin Palandella puts on his soccer shoes as he sits with his little brother Bautista Lionel and his stuffed toys on his bed in Buenos Aires, Argentina. "I want to be like Messi and play for Barcelona," said Palandella. He likes how the Barcelona star "steps" on the ball, scores and shoots free kicks. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Nov. 11, 2016 photo, a child plays with a ball at the youth soccer academy, Club Social Parque, in a working class neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Club Social Parque is the same soccer talent factory where international stars like Diego Maradona, Carlos Tevez and Juan Roman Riquelme polished their skills as children. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Nov. 19, 2016 photo, parents scream as their children play a league soccer game on the outskirts of in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For the thousands of talented youngsters, only a small percentage will become elite players. Some will struggle along the way to overcome injuries. Others will fall to the psychological pressure at home or on the field. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Nov. 11, 2016 photo, a young player collects the ball in the net during a training game at youth soccer academy Club Social Parque in a working class neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Former players say the secret to Parque is the eye of scout Ramon Maddoni for spotting young talent and his insistence on practicing skill sets in reduced spaces and imperfect surfaces where kids learn how to react faster, giving them a competitive advantage when they eventually reach large professional fields. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Nov. 11, 2016 photo, Benjamin Palandella controls the ball during a training session in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The 75-year-old coach of the youth soccer academy Club Social Parque likes to recite the names of the dozens of kids - more than 200 by his count - that he has coached and who went on to play with Argentina's national team and Europe's top clubs. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Nov. 11, 2016 photo, Benjamin Palandella poses for a portrait wearing his Barcelona shirt after a training session in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Palandella's coach Ramon Maddoni said "Benjamin is different from the group. He can pass with his back turned, he uses both legs." (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Nov. 19, 2016 photo, a framed picture shows Thiago "Coco" Perugini next to images of soccer star Diego Maradona, at his home where he lies on bed, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Like Maradona, Thiago is a classic playmaker. He knows that he wants to be a professional soccer player. But what would he do, if he doesn't end up going pro? After a long silence, he shrugs his shoulders, smiles and answers: "I don't know." (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Nov. 11, 2016 photo, Thiago "Coco" Perugini controls the ball in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Perugini is one of the top young players at the youth soccer academy Club Social Parque, and has been invited to play with kids two years older than him. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this Nov. 19, 2016 photo, Thiago "Coco" Perugini shows one of his trophies to journalists inside his room on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Thiago recently transferred to the youth division of San Lorenzo and his parents had his wall painted in the club's red and blue colors. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

 

In this March 18, 2017 photo, coach Ariel Picallo talks to his team of 7-year-olds after they lost a game at the youth soccer academy Club Social Parque in a working class neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. At his youth soccer academy, about 150 children as young as 6 from all economic levels train together twice a week and compete on the weekends. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)


Text from the AP news story, The next Messi may be training at this youth soccer camp, by Luis Andres Henao.

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