Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar have become well-known names among even those with a minimal connection to soccer as the sport continues to grow internationally. However, I’ve always wondered what the journey was like for players to reach that stage – namely to have the opportunity to be a part of the biggest soccer clubs in the world. Upon looking closely at the international club stage, it’s clear that although many players come from all parts of the world, particular countries (like Spain, England, or France) seem to consistently boast a significantly higher percentage of successful and well-known players. To me, I’ve always wondered what the barriers of entry for hopeful players from lesser-represented countries are and how can those players get to the highest level.
This led me to a docuseries on Garuda Select, a U17 group of aspiring Indonesian players and their journey across Europe playing against some of the most elite academy teams in the hopes of being noticed and signed by European clubs. Their five-month journey was led by two ex-England international team players: Dennis Wise and Des Walker. As I watched the first few episodes of the docuseries, I couldn’t help but root for each of these kids, and at the same time face the reality that the majority of them would be going back to Indonesia after this journey. The series immediately drew me in as it chronicles the journey of players who have their sights set to the very top and highlights the challenges and adjustments the young boys face coming from Indonesia.
Some of the challenges and adjustments documented made me think a lot about the stories in African Soccerscapes and The Country of Football, where in both cases it was clear that talent developed mainly on an individual level from playing in confined spaces, however, home-grown players missed key elements of the game that could only be taught through more formal coaching setups. Garuda Select brought these pages to life, and it allowed me to see how much of a difference Dennis and Des were making in the development of the soccer sense in the young boys. The players themselves say that they’ve learned a lot tactically, for example how to defend and execute set pieces. In addition, they began to hone their team abilities and responsibilities, learning the importance of not losing the ball and making smart passes.
Despite their abrupt introduction into the highly competitive European soccer scene, Garuda Select outplayed many of the English academy clubs in the beginning and adapted quickly to the physicality of play and the lessons they were taught by their coaches. Their perseverance and discipline both inspired me and made me realize how unlikely the chances of soccer stardom really are. However, Dennis and Des are providing a real chance for some of the young players to achieve that or to at least bring back to Indonesia as greatly improved players. Through initiatives like this, not only do the big leagues get access to more untapped talent, but also players who do not have easy exposure to soccer in the rest of the world can compete and develop, making soccer even more of a global event.