“Ooh, liking that!” smiles Andy Johnson. Seven-year-old Sam has just rolled the ball back into the path of an oncoming teammate, who in turn taps it forward for a goal-scoring chance. “Nice passing, under 21s!”
So far, so Saturday morning soccer, you might think. But this is no ordinary kickabout. We’re in southern Sardinia, the kids have personal kits, and games wind up with a swim off one of the most beautiful beaches in Italy. Oh, and you may recognise the coach’s name. Johnson played with Everton, Crystal Palace and QPR, was the top English goal-scorer in the 2004/5 Premier League, and won eight English caps. Sam is in seventh heaven.
We arrived at Chia Laguna Resort late Saturday night. Run by the Italian Hospitality Collection, this chic complex of hotels, pools, restaurants, spas and sports facilities cascades down the hills of Baia di Chia, sprawling around the central square of Piazza degli Ulivi, where guests meet and mingle for cabaret shows, gelati and drinks in the evenings. “Any chance of food at this hour?” I asked the receptionist who checked us into our base for the week, the five-star Hotel Laguna. “Of course,” he said. “It’s waiting in your room.”
Upstairs, four antipasti plates were laid out in a balcony room overlooking hills tufted with olive trees, and the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. Usually, our family holidays involve a tiring whack of Dad-driven exploration. This was going to be different. With temperatures hitting the mid-thirties, and the kids booked into soccer and dance camps from 10-11.30am and 5-6pm Monday to Friday, we were about as intrepid as sun loungers.
“We’re doing a routine for the stage, with practise starting tomorrow,” 11-year-old Rosa reports after her first session with Alexandra Gale at the Campioni Dance Academy. “On the stage in front of actual people! OMG!”
Campioni’s soccer academies are well-known (Andy Cole and Yannick Bolaise were among the other pros joining camps in 2017), but dance is a new venture. Classes take place in an air-conditioned conference centre to the tunes of Little Mix and Meghan Trainor — exactly the kind of stuff blasting from Rosa’s emoji-tagged Spotify playlists back home. At the beginning, she seems a little reserved and bunched up, but soon gains confidence. The blend of street and hip-hop is right up her alley, as is the impossibly glamorous Ms. Gale.
“I found it complicated but soon got the hang of it,” Rosa says. “She fills us with compliments, and she’s always smiling.”
Meanwhile, Andy and fellow coach Stuart are running the Campioni soccer academy as a mix of games and drills — for the most part keeping a fun, casual air to proceedings. The boys (and they are all boys) range from six to 14, and most are pretty nifty — one has had a trial for Arsenal’s youth academy. By the end of the week, Sam’s nailed his first crossbar challenge (which Andy captures on video — whoop!), and is actively seeking space and calling for passes.
“I got two medals and a certificate,” Sam reports, beaming. “I scored three goals in one day and one was a nutmeg!”
There’s a dads’ game on Wednesday night, too. I’m nervous for my wooden hamstrings, but once a ‘bucket of beer’ is mentioned, I’m in.
Family holidays aren’t all about the kids… except they are, really. Good Italian resorts have a knack for working with that rather than against it. Forget the yacht-spotted snobbery of the Costa Smeralda; this is real-life luxury. Chia Laguna runs four kids’ clubs by age (3-6, 7-10, 11-13, 14-17), there are novelty trains to the seaside, shows every night and activities ranging from ‘drawing laboratories’ to beach tournaments. We drift in and out of Sam and Rosa’s academies, but make time for our own dips and downtime too.
Most families stay at the four-star Hotel Village, with cottage-style rooms scattered around the pool. The five-star Hotel Laguna comes at a premium, of course, but includes dinner at the resort’s best restaurant, along with extra touches like a private beach shuttle, pool and staff who won’t think twice about running down to the Piazza’s ice-cream counter for the kids. Downsides? The wi-fi isn’t as reliable as it should be, the resort photographers pop-up a little too often (they sell prints in a little store on the square), and the AstroTurf pitch isn’t shaded — though Andy and Stuart are excellent with water and rest breaks.
Then, of course, there’s the sea. Sardinia sits bang in the middle of the Med’s warmest waters, and Chia Bay’s beaches are gorgeous. Snorkelling ranges from tiny islands and rocky coves to a little rock garden about 65ft offshore at Chia Laguna’s resort beach. When it’s not too windy, we see lots of rainbow wrasse, painted combers and bream. The wow moment is seeing an octopus, with his tentacles and balloon-like head shape-shifting below a rocky ledge.
“I thought he was going to shoot ink at us,” Sam says, sharing our GoPro photos with granny and granddad back home.
In the evenings, after showers and device time, we gather on Hotel Laguna’s terracotta-tiled terrace, sipping iced teas and local beers in cooling temperatures before moseying into the a la carte restaurant — where highlights include mouth-watering prawns with passion fruit, rocket and zingy citrus, and a pasta with rabbit and thyme — or the little pizzeria on the square. Once or twice, a full moon rises like a bruised peach over the terrace, just as we’re eating dessert.
At the end of the week, the kids get medals, certificates and their kits to keep. Rosa’s show goes down a storm, parents share tables, and Sam’s crossbar challenge is played on the big screen. It’s our own little piece of Sardinian paradise, with football and dance fantasies on the side. Result.
Pól, his wife, Lynnea; daughter Rosa (11); and son, Sam (7).
Active kids aged 6-13.
How to do it
Western & Oriental has flights plus a week’s half-board for a family of four at the five-star Hotel Laguna from £7,159, based on two adults and two children sharing two superior rooms. Rates at the four-star Hotel Village start from £150 per person, per day, excluding flights.
Campioni Football and Dance Academies cost £495 and £315 per child respectively, including kits.
Need to know
Gym shoes are fine for soccer, but most kids bring AstroTurf or football boots. Lashings of sunscreen and water are a must, and bring/buy a travel pack of detergent to wash kits in the evening — they get spectacularly stinky.
Published in the 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family