Fathers, Sons and Soccer: Reflections on the Family Business

DORTMUND, Germany — Claudio Reyna cannot put a precise date on it, but it must have been in the last six months or so that his identity — without him really knowing it — began to change.

He is no longer Claudio Reyna, longstanding United States international, veteran of a 15-year career in some of Europe’s biggest leagues, sporting director of Major League Soccer’s Austin F.C. “Now, when I’m introduced to people, especially kids,” Reyna said, “it is just as Gio Reyna’s dad.”

Reyna is not alone in having to make that transformation. Soccer has always run in families to some extent — Paolo Maldini and Frank Lampard and Jordi Cruyff all came from stellar lineages — but now there is a new group of familiar names on the backs of jerseys across Europe.

Erling Haaland, son of Alfie, the Norwegian international, plays with Reyna at Borussia Dortmund. Marcus Thuram — whose father, Lilian, won the World Cup with France in 1998 — has become one of the Bundesliga’s brightest talents at Borussia Mönchengladbach.

There is a Chiesa at Fiorentina, a Hagi playing for Romania and a Weah and a Drogba coming through in France. There is even another Maldini — a third generation — now wearing the famous red and black stripes of A.C. Milan.

It is a moment that raises a familiar suite of questions. Does a famous name weigh heavy on young shoulders? Do whispered accusations of nepotism — that they are nothing more than “the son of,” as Lilian Thuram put it — provide inspiration to young men trying to prove themselves?

And when your son hits the big time, how does that transition feel, to see your renown eclipsed by that of your child? In interviews with both generations of the Reyna, Haaland and Thuram families, it is clear — in their own words, edited and condensed below for clarity — that becoming the father of a top player, rather than being the son of one, is considerably easier.

“He has a platform to inspire kids,” Claudio Reyna said of realizing that his son’s newfound status has diminished his own. “And that is cool, as a dad.”

Credit…Pool photo by Maja Hitij

As a kid, having a famous surname was a positive and a negative. There were probably some people who thought my name got me my chance. For me, that was just motivation.

There were a lot of times I proved I was good in my own right: at my hometown team, Bryne; at Molde, when I started doing well there; at Red Bull Salzburg; and now, at Dortmund. I have shown it a lot of times.

Maybe we are now past the point when people can say I am getting my chance because of who my dad is. He has been at almost every good moment for me: He is kind of a lucky charm.

Becoming a player always felt natural. It was my dream — as it is for almost every kid — but it was when I was 15 or 16 that I felt I could be a professional. We talked a lot about it. It is good to have a father who played, because he knows the game, knows what it is to be a player. It was always my choice, but he helped me to find the right places.

Since the moment I started, the goal has always been to be better than him. I am in a good way, but there is still a way to go yet. I haven’t surpassed him. He had a not bad career. I’m proud of him. Is he now just the father of Erling Haaland? No. I would still say no. He has a big name to live up to, you know.

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That’s very nice of him to say, but I am definitely becoming known for being the father of Erling Haaland. He is not the son of Alfie Haaland anymore. At the start, it was the other way around, but that’s a good thing. I hope he can become a lot better than me.

I took a step back during his youth: I was not directly involved in his daily training or anything like that. There was absolutely no pressure from me. But he was always competing with his siblings — or with me — and looking back, he was building that willingness to do anything to win.

I don’t know where that comes from. Maybe you need a gene to have the hunger, every single day, to do your best. I have known a lot of players with talent, but who didn’t want to sacrifice all the things you need to be a really good player. Maybe I provided an example, I don’t know. But there are a lot of sacrifices to make, particularly in your teens and in your 20s, and he has always been aware of that.

Credit…David Hecker/EPA, via Shutterstock

I had a few options for my first professional deal. New York City F.C. wanted to sign me. So did Manchester City. But once an offer came from Borussia Dortmund, I couldn’t say no. It was everything about the club, the opportunities they gave to young players. And it was a chance to step away, to create my own path, to do my own thing.

I think my dad understood that, from my perspective, the connection was a bit stressful. There were times when I was coming through with the national team that it was difficult to have the name. I was good at 13 and 14, but it was not until a little later that I really took off. I wasn’t always the best player on the team, and people thought I could get away with more. Maybe, at times, it was true.

He gave me advice when I knew I could turn professional, but mainly he just put me out there and let me decide where I wanted to go. He has always wanted what I wanted. He is the opposite of pushy, really: When I was little, he never told me to go out and train five times a day. What pushed me on was my competitive streak, my willingness to be better than others.

He was, at times, a bit hard on me: He always focused on what had to get better. He often wouldn’t tell me if I’d had a good game. But he knew what I had to improve to make it to the highest level.

Credit…Paul Ellis/Associated Press

I knew that, at 17 or 18, you do not speak much in the locker room. You’re walking into a locker room of men. If you don’t respect that, the senior guys will throw you out. You have to have that understanding that you are in the first stage of your career. It is not just one step and you’re there.

Now, though, because he’s very open, the stories he tells me from behind the scenes in the locker room remind me of being there: all the fun and the pranks and the jokes. You see him growing into the squad, that feeling of being accepted, of finding his way.

You still need the same values and standards as you did when I was coming through — being a good teammate, behaving well in the locker room — but for Gio and his generation, players like Erling and Jadon Sancho, the external factors are different, all of the attention and the things thrown at you from a young age.

He laughs off the silly and unrealistic stuff about being the next superstar. His focus is simple: day to day, year to year, building a good career. He knows he will have difficult moments and tough times, that it’s inevitable. But he knows he will have to keep going, and he will have to handle them. I’m proud of how much he gets it.

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It was not always easy for me when my dad came to watch me play. There is one game I remember. The coach had asked me to do one thing on the field, but my dad, standing on the touchline, was telling me to do something else. It was an impossible situation: my coach saying one thing, and Lilian Thuram another.

I listened to the coach, but after the game, my dad asked the coach why he had asked me to play that way. So you had this amateur youth coach explaining to a World Cup winner his ideas about the game. After a while, my dad starting laughing at the situation. I think, when I was younger, some of my coaches did not really like my dad.

It was only when I was 11 that he allowed me to start playing soccer for a club, and even then it was not a professional team’s youth academy. He encouraged me to do swimming, judo, everything, but soccer had to wait.

He was trying to protect me; he knew that when the son of someone arrives on a team, there can be jealousy. Players want to foul you. Parents speak badly about you. At times, I could not understand how people could think like that — you think the goalkeeper let me score because he likes my dad? I did want to prove people wrong.

I’m not into competition, really: He was the first Thuram, and being the first of something is always stronger. All I can do is try to be the best Marcus Thuram.

Credit…Patrik Stollarz/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

I remember the game he is talking about. The coach changed which wing Marcus was playing on so I couldn’t talk to him!

For a parent, the pleasure is in seeing your kids do what they have always wanted to do. As a former player, you know, too, exactly what he has had to do to achieve it. He has always been a happy kid, always smiling, like sunshine even in winter, but he always knew he had to work to reach his dreams.

We have talked a lot about where that comes from. People who live in a comfortable situation do not always have that hunger. They do not always want to grow. They are not prepared to do the things you need to develop. It does not depend on where you come from or your background: It depends on what you are prepared to do. It is inside you. It is not to do with your family.

He always saw soccer as a dream, and it is really important that he does not forget that. All children want to be players, and very few can do it. That’s something I tried to pass on to him: when he was playing against Neymar in France, or now that he is in Germany, playing against people he watched in the 2014 World Cup final. It’s important he realizes his good luck, but he must never forget that this is his dream. Happily, he has not lost that.

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