Sideline Champs: Abuse will put off future stars, warns All White

By Susan Edmunds

All White veteran Ivan Vicelich doesn't flinch when it starts to rain on the pitch where he is teaching football skills to a group of 7- and 8-year-old children.

It's not until the thunder and lightening roll in across Bayfield Primary that the group decides it may be time to head for cover.

New Zealanders will be more familiar with the image of Vicelich in professional-football mode - taking to the field in every one of the All Whites' three Fifa World Cup final games.

But he also spends a lot of his time helping to foster a love of the sport among children.

"We go to schools and teach them about football. We deal with a whole class, so you get some who are good at running and some who aren't, some who want to play and some who don't, boys and girls," he says. "We give them posters and they start talking about the All Whites, which is pretty strange in New Zealand where it's still a minority sport."

Minority sport it may be but Vicelich, 37, has dedicated his life to football. A child of Croatian immigrants, he says he grew up with the ball: "Football's in my Dad's blood."

Football crowds are a unique breed, he says. "I think football fans around the world are pretty passionate. They don't like to sit on their seats, they like to jump around and shout and sing."

But he says it's really important that sport is fun for young players: he might not be playing football today if he had encountered the sort of sideline behaviour he sees directed at the kids he coaches.

His own sons - Luka, 5, and Ivan, 18 months - are also shaping up to be football pros.

Vicelich has been coaching a team of 10- and 11-year-olds, and says when the young players take to the field it's common to hear parents getting angry and upset about the decisions being made.

"Some of them are really over the top," he says.

Sometimes parents direct their anger at the children, who might have passed the ball the wrong way or run in the wrong direction.

Honest mistakes can draw a barrage of vitriol from those who are meant to be supporting the team.

By contrast, Vicelich says he can remember only positivity from his coaches and parents on the sidelines of his schoolboy matches. And because it was fun to play soccer, he kept doing it.

Parents need to think about the effect of their behaviour on their children: "They have to sit back and realise that the kids are doing their best. The best thing for parents to do is just be positive."

They should cut coaches and referees some slack, too.

"For volunteers, it's not an easy task to put time and effort in ... they want the best out of their players. A lot are not trained referees. If they're reffing for the first time and get the calls wrong and get a lot of abuse, it doesn't make it easy."

By signing up as an ambassador for the Herald on Sunday Sideline Champs campaign, Vicelich hopes to let parents know their kids are doing their best and deserve support, no matter the score.

Children need a reason to carry on playing sport, rather than retreating to the PlayStation.

"They won't go and play at the weekends or train during the week if they don't enjoy it," he says. "If they're getting a hard time, they might just stop."

- Herald on Sunday

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