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Soccer star taught kids

My wife and I have long told our two young children that they can learn how to behave by watching just about anyone. Some people will display positive attributes they should emulate, while others will model unacceptable behaviors.

Supremely talented but emotionally volatile soccer player Carlos Valderrama served both roles.

Ours is a soccer family. The kids go from outdoor soccer to indoor soccer and back again. Life is a blur of practices, training sessions, tryouts and camps. The majority of their close friendships are the result of soccer.

Even when Kyle and Carolyn aren't playing, we follow the sport, particularly the region's Major League Soccer team, the Tampa Bay Mutiny. Watching the masterful Valderrama, their star midfielder who was traded to the Colorado Rapids last month, has been a special treat.

For those not familiar with El Pibe, as Valderrama is known, he is one of the most recognized players in the world, and not just because of his distinctive mop of gold hair. The 39-year-old Colombian is a supremely, almost supernaturally talented player, regularly making plays that leave fans and players agog. The former Mutiny captain seems to have eyes in the back of his head, as he makes instinctive one-touch passes to people he couldn't possibly see.

His unselfish play has made him the league's all-time leader in assists. As the longtime captain of Colombia's National Team, he enjoys rock-star popularity around the globe.

We had the opportunity to meet Carlos on a couple of occasions and found him friendly and gracious. Most recently, he appeared at an open house conducted by the Hillsborough County United Soccer Club. He signed cards and posed for photographs with anyone who asked. The day he was traded, we had a roll of film developed that contained a now-prized photo of a smiling Valderrama with the kids.

As budding soccer players, Kyle and Carolyn learned a great deal from watching Valderrama. We talked about his head-up style of play and his unselfishness in distributing the ball to teammates. They saw how a master passes the ball and makes everyone on the team better. From his personal appearances, they saw that famous people can be as polite and unassuming as anyone else can.

Those are qualities we like to see in our children.

Unfortunately, there is a darker side to Carlos Valderrama, one that ultimately got him run out of town. His inability to control his temper eventually outweighed his prodigious talents. The kids first noticed that he frequently got upset with his teammates, gesturing and shouting if they didn't do what he thought they should do. They commented that it would be stressful playing with someone like that.

As the team struggled, the Westchase resident's frustration mounted. He was suspended twice for spitting on opposing players. His absence during those suspensions made the team's situation worse. He punched one of his teammates and tried to fight with another at a practice.

As these events unfolded, the kids' admiration for Valderrama waned. They knew that soccer is a team sport and everyone must contribute. His conduct was hurting the team.

The lessons were obvious and took no coaching on our part. Kyle and Carolyn knew his actions were inappropriate and that disrespect for any person, teammate or opponent, cannot be tolerated. They learned that personal behavior is important and that no one, no matter how talented or well-known, is more important than the team. They also saw how quickly someone could tarnish his reputation.

By his actions on and off the field, Valderrama taught our children valuable lessons about soccer and life. While we were sorry to see him go, his departure reinforced our point that actions have consequences.

On Saturday evening, we'll be at Raymond James Stadium, cheering on the Mutiny as they play the Colorado Rapids. It'll be strange seeing Valderrama in the visitors' uniform.

We wish him the best.

Steven A. Simon is a freelance writer in Cheval who has contributed several stories to North of Tampa.