In an exclusive interview with GOAL, Ben Lederman opens up about his release from La Masia after being banned by FIFA
For a player once described as an “American boy wonder”, Ben Lederman no longer has any trace of the United States in his accent.
Indeed, when he speaks, he sounds closer to Krakow than to his native Los Angeles.
“Everyone tells me my accent doesn’t sound American,” he says, speaking exclusively to OBJECTIVE. “But I haven’t lived there for 11 years!”
Lederman has come a long way, both geographically and metaphorically, since being hailed by US media as the future of the USMNT and the next big thing for the Barcelona academy.
A few years later, however, he left La Masia, having been caught in a tangled net of FIFA bureaucracy against which he still harbors a grudge.
Now, however, Lederman is back, with ambitious Polish league runner-up Rakow Częstochowa as one of Ekstraklasa’s finest midfielders, and with an eye on international stardom – but not for the Stars and Stripes. .
Early in his career, the future looked very different.
He was scouted by Barcelona scouts while playing against one of their youth teams for California State Under-10s and was invited to La Masia when he was 11 years old.
His whole family moved to Barcelona to support Ben. Coming from a Jewish family, he celebrated his bar mitzvah in a synagogue in the Spanish city.
By joining Barcelona, Lederman had the honor of becoming the first American player to be registered with the club.
Social media was ablaze with talk of the prodigy, with all the clips and photos of his progress eagerly viewed and analysed. The New York Times profiled him when he was 13, describing him as “Wonderful American Boy in Barcelona” in their headline.
Lederman, however, was too busy enjoying his football to pay attention to the hype.
“It was like a dream come true,” he admits. “But at such a young age, you don’t pay attention to that stuff. [media pressure], you go out and play every day and enjoy it. If you start reading these things, it’s too much stress.”
Less impressed with the move, however, was FIFA.
Article 19 of its regulations on the status and transfer of players prohibits young players from registering with a club outside their country of origin until the age of 18, unless they respect certain exceptions – which Lederman did not, and he, along with 10 other teenage players, were banned from competitive football in 2016.
“One day I went to training and the coach told me that Barca were in a difficult situation with FIFA, and from now on I couldn’t play anymore,” he explained. he.
“They said it would be temporary, but they didn’t know how long I would be unable to play. He told me that I couldn’t play any more official matches.
“Of course it affected me because at that age all you want to do is play football. It wasn’t fair.”
Seeing his dream slowly swept away before his eyes, for reasons beyond his control or understanding before he was legally old enough to drive or drink, had a crushing effect on young Lederman – but that’s something something he tried to use to fire him in the rest of his career.
“It’s a terrible thing to explain: sitting in the crowd at the weekend watching your teammates play, and you have to sit still, it’s painful,” he said. “You have to be strong mentally, and I think I was and still am because of that.
“It was tough back then, but maybe it all happened for a reason, and it helped my career in a different way.”
He found a certain kinship with the other players who were banned, such as South Korean prodigy Lee Seung-woo.
“There was an age difference, but we saw each other and we talked about the situation and the rest,” he reveals.
“We were training every day, waiting for the situation to be resolved, and it just wasn’t happening.”
Lederman’s career was at a standstill. He missed the USA squad for the 2017 Under-17 World Cup, before eventually obtaining a Polish passport, which allowed him to return to competition.
At this point, however, he was well below the hierarchy of his age group and in 2018, at the age of 18, he was released by Barcelona.
He says: “It was a difficult situation, but that’s football, you have to understand it and move on.
“Football gives a lot of circles: some days you can be at the top, the next day at the bottom, everything changes. But you can always come back up.”
For a few years it looked like Lederman might walk away from the game altogether. Two seasons in the youth books of Belgian side Genk didn’t result in a professional contract and he found himself facing the wild nature of the soccer.
Thus, a young man who just seven years ago was hailed in the pages of one of the world’s leading newspapers found himself in Israel’s third division.
Lederman has signed a short-term contract with Hakoah Amidar Ramat Gan in La Liga Alef. He made one appearance for the club, on February 14, 2020, starting and playing 65 minutes of a 1-0 loss to Maccabi Sha’arayim.
Lederman says of the detour: “It was a short time. My agent at the time was from Israel, so he told me to go and train with this club, it was just temporary, to play a few games and keep my pace.
“It wasn’t the standard in Europe, but that was the situation back then – I just wanted to play. I love playing football, anywhere and anytime, and at the time I was desperate to do it.”
Lederman’s agent found strengths, with a switch to unheralded Polish side Racow. A modest platform, but where his talent could shine.
There’s a lot of Barcelona in the way he plays: a central midfielder who always seems to have time on the ball and the ability to make the right pass. There’s steel in his game too: at 5’11” he has an airy presence and there’s no shrinking purple in the tackle either.
Having never won a major trophy before, Rakow won the Polish Cup in 2020-21 and finished second in the Ekstraklasa in each of the last two campaigns. They led the league with three games remaining in 2021-22 but let Lech Poznan slip away at the final hurdle.
Lederman said of Racow: “I signed a six-month contract, but after they liked what they saw, I signed for four years.
“The start wasn’t easy, it was my first professional club, but with hard work and dedication, I proved my worth to my team, and I’m where I am because of that.
“I like everything in Poland, except the weather. We have a good technical staff, a good team and every season we play better and better.
“We have a very ambitious coach, we are an ambitious club, we want more and more every season. The results are coming, with a lot of hard work – we are the hardest working team in Poland.”
So should USMNT fans get excited again? No. Lederman accepted a call-up for an Under-21 training camp in Poland in May 2021 and made his debut for his adopted nation in an Under-21 Euro qualifier against Poland. Germany in November.
“I like to focus on things and places where I’m wanted,” he says bluntly when asked about the Poland-US choice. “Poland wanted me more.
“The United States has never even contacted me for the past few years. Of course, it was difficult, but I felt more wanted and that finally made it easier.”
Lederman is now aiming for the top of the game for club and country. Rakow will play in the Europa Conference League next season (only Polish Ekstraklasa winners enter the Champions League), so that’s the next step.
The other, however, is going to a World Cup. Qatar 2022 may be too soon, but Lederman could be aiming for 2026, co-hosted by his home nation.
American fans will finally be able to discover their little prodigy in the colors of Poland. And what would they see, if Lederman were to sum up his career so far?
“There’s definitely been a lot of ups and downs in my career,” he says, “and I’m still not where I want to be, but I’m on the right track.”