El Pibe del Barrio: Understanding the Latin American archetype and what it means for U.S. Soccer

Are economic barriers preventing the U.S. from developing more players like Christian Pulisic?

In 1928, the editor of the Argentine sports journal El Grafico, Borocoto, penned the perfect description of the Argentine footballing spirit. He described the “pibe”, the kid, as one with:

“… a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seems to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating yesterday’s bread. His trousers are a few roughly sewn patches; his vest with Argentinian stripes, with a very low neck and with many holes eaten out by the invisible mice of use.”

As English author Jonathan Wilson comments, it’s an eerily accurate description of the best Argentine player — and maybe the best player period — Diego Maradona, almost a quarter century before El Diego would make his debut. The term “pibe” has been used by many writers and pundits to describe the Argentine footballing ethos.

As such, it’s a term we rarely hear discussed in the United States. However, by understanding this archetype, which runs throughout Latin America in one name or another, we can better understand the Latin American temperance and what it means for U.S. Soccer.

The pibe is the poor kid from the barrio. Draped in poverty, he dribbles around obstacles and through the vacant lots of Buenos Aires. His game, then, is one of creativity, spontaneity and, above all, freedom. It’s the quintessential “rags-to-riches” story about the kid who gets ahead not by social standing or connections, but by sheer cunning and grit. Pibe, in this sense, is almost exclusively an Argentine term. But the idea exists across Latin America, even if it does not have a name.

Think of the Brazilian kids playing in the favelas or perfecting their kicks on Rio’s gorgeous beaches. In Mexico too, the term exists in some capacity. Perhaps the best example is of Julio Gomez in the 2011 U-17 World Cup semifinals. With a bandaged head and a scorpion kick in the 88th minute, Gomez helped the young Mexicans upset the taller, stronger, and favored Germans. If you prefer a more poetic example, then we can rewind and go back to earlier in the summer of 2011 when Giovani Dos Santos literally put one over the United States in the Gold Cup final.

This archetype exists in the United States, just not in soccer. Had LeBron James been born in South America, he would have flopped on the soccer pitch and not the basketball court. Basketball in the United States is what soccer is to the rest of the world: the sport of the masses, the underrepresented and the underprivileged. The sport is an opportunity for economic expansion and an opportunity to escape into a better life. So if basketball is the “ballet of the masses” here at home, then where does that leave soccer?

Sergio Levinsky is an Argentine author and sociologist. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with him about various topics, including the rising cost of the sport in Latin America.

“Kids (and their families) don’t have the money to pay for the academies, which are becoming very expensive. The sport is becoming more rooted in the upper class. And upper class soccer is obedient…and boring.”

He says the movement towards “pay-to-play” is affecting the game in Argentina and Latin America at large. As the game becomes more expensive, the talent pool dwindles.

While it’s a recent development in Latin America, it has long been the norm in the United States where dues can easily surpass the thousand dollar mark. That is fine if you’re from the suburbs of Philadelphia. But if you grew up in Modesto’s Airport District, you don’t stand a chance of playing for a top travel team. Last year, the Guardian wrote about the effect of “pay-to-play” has on U.S. Soccer. While there is a lot of interest for the sport, especially amongst immigrants from Latin America:

“…finding those kids is hard. Money has only hardened the divide between rich and poor, leaving the game to thrive in wealthy communities, where the cost of organized soccer has become outrageous, pricing out those in lower income neighborhoods.”

While I don’t necessarily agree with the Guardian’s assertion of the sport being “predominantly white” (skin color isn’t as important as the fact that most of the players come from the same class), it is correct in asserting that U.S. Soccer discriminates against players from lower socio-economic levels.

So if the embodiment of the Argentine spirit is the pibe dribbling down the alleys of Buenos Aires, then what is the embodiment of the U.S.? A kid getting dropped off at soccer practice in a Chevy Suburban?

At 18 years old, Christian Pulisic is already the USA’s best player. He had two assists and scored a goal in the USA’s 6–0 thumping of Honduras during the third stage of the CONCACAF qualifiers for Russia 2018.

As The Ringer’s Noah Davis wrote, “If you wanted to write the backstory for American soccer’s ideal first superstar, you’d probably come up with something like Pulisic’s.”

Both of Pulisic’s parents played college soccer and by the time he was seven, he had already spent time developing his game in England. At 16, he joined the youth ranks of Germany’s Borussia Dortmund, a club known for developing such talents as Mario Götze, Marco Reus and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

But I wonder, had Pulisic been a poor kid from Modesto’s Airport District, would he have received the same opportunities? Would his parents have been able to afford the traveling, training and the rigorous schedule of a soccer phenom?

Pulisic as the archetype of the U.S. Soccer star is concerning because it is elite. It tells us that soccer in the U.S. remains firmly entrenched as an upper class sport. If a national team is only drawing talent from the top 1%, then it’s bound to let diamonds fall through the cracks.

We know it’s a concern. U.S. Soccer knows it’s a concern. I’m ecstatic for what Pulisic brings to my national team. But I also know we have to fix the system so that the Pulisics from other socioeconomic levels can have a chance too.

I’ve been working at Google for almost four years and I live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. But I still see myself through the eyes of the pibe, as that poor kid from California’s Central Valley.

The pibe archetype is important because it helps us understand not only our emotional connection to the game but because it tells us what our version of the game is lacking, namely a way for the American Carlos Tevezes, Luis Suarezes and Juan Roman Riquelmes to rise through the ranks.

Pay to play, as the Guardian article states, is a bottleneck for American talent. If we do not address it, not only will our superstars be fewer and further in between, but our game will continue to suffer.

I’m not romanticizing poverty. I’ve been through it and it’s not fun. But I am saying that soccer is the manifestation of a culture, a people. We don’t have to adapt to the South American or the German style of play, but we do need room for poor kids to dribble their way from America’s poorest neighborhoods and into the starting lineup of our national team.