By Mike Woitalla
How much performances at youth national team championships tell us about the state of soccer in a country is debatable, but here's what Harry Redknapp said after England exited the U-21 European Championship in Israel with three straight losses:
"We do not know how to play football. We just boot the ball up the pitch and it gets us nowhere. ... In international football you cannot just hit and hope because you give the ball away. It's all about possession, retaining the ball, controlling the game. We need coaches who believe in that ideal. ... We don't have the kids coached the same way -- the right way -- from a young age. As a result we have a senior team that is greatly underachieving."
Redknapp, the Queens Park Rangers head coach with three decades of English club coaching experience, was joined in his criticism by former England star John Barnes after England’s losses to Norway, Italy and Israel.
“The players aren’t there,” Barnes told talkSport. “They are not good enough. We still like this old British mentality of up-and-at them, get stuck in, because we are not comfortable keeping the ball if it is seemingly going nowhere. Spain don’t keep the ball just for the sake of it, but in England we have this attitude that, if you are keeping the ball for 20 passes without getting over the halfway line, they are doing it for no reason. We have to change our philosophy and our mentality.”
Spain, which won the last Euro U-21 title, in 2011, reached the final against Italy and on its way beat Germany, which also exited in the first round.
“The Hangover after the High” is how Frankfurter Rundschau described Germany’s elimination in the wake of the all-German (Bayern Munich-Borussia Dortmund) UEFA Champions League final. Germany had revamped its youth development program a decade ago in a collaboration between its federation (DFB) and Bundesliga clubs that has included an investment of $900 million to create future stars.
The Bundesliga is booming, thanks much to domestic talent, and the full national team has reached the final four of the last four major competitions (World Cups and Euros). Germany finished runner-up to Mexico at the 2011 U-17 World Cup with an exciting, high-scoring team. But the U-21 failure in June came after Germany's U-19 and U-17 teams failed even reach their European championships.
"There are no alarm bells ringing with us," said DFB President Wolfgang Niersbach. "But we will process all this calmly."
Germany's U-21s went to Israel without several of their top players -- including Bayern's Toni Kroos, Mario Goetze and Andre Schuerrle -- because of injuries and the DFB's policy of not recalling players to youth teams once they've established themselves on the full national team. Still, the first-round exit was enough of a disappointment to put the DFB on the defensive.
"To speak of a crisis in our youth program makes me laugh," said Germany's U-18 coach Horst Hrubesch, who guided Germany to the European 2009 title with a team that included Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil, Mats Hummels and Sami Khedira. "What has been done in with our youth development in the past decade is the right way and to judge it just on titles or tournaments would be wrong."
The next major youth tournament kicks off this Friday in Turkey with 24 nations competing in the U-20 World Cup. The Germans are not among the six-team European contingent: Croatia, England, France, Greece, Portugal and Spain. At the 2011 U-20 World Cup, Brazil beat Portugal in the final for its fifth title and Mexico defeated France for third place. Neither Brazil nor Argentina, a record six-time winner, made it to Turkey.
Having failed to qualify for the 2011 U-20 World Cup, the 2012 Olympics (a U-23 competition) and the 2013 U-17 World Cup, the Americans’ qualification for this summer’s U-20 World Cup must have come as a big relief for U.S. Soccer, which has ambitiously boosted its youth development programs, starting with the creation of the U.S. Development Academy in 2007.
Coach Tab Ramos’ U.S. team's play in qualifying -- four straight wins before losing the final, 3-1, in overtime to host Mexico in a commendable performance -- raised hopes for the American’s first second-round appearance at the U-20 World Cup since 2007. But the USA was drawn into the toughest group and must face European champion Spain, European semifinalist France and 2009 U-20 world champion Ghana.
Alarm bells may not ring if the Americans don't reach the knockout stage, but how they perform against the very elite of their peers will be intriguing to see.
(Notes: The U-21 European Championship is contested by players who met the U-21 definition -- born on or after 1 January 1990 – when qualifying started in 2011.The U-20 World Cup will be televised in the USA by ESPN networks.)