Championships put nations' youth programs under scrutiny

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.)

13 comments about "Championships put nations' youth programs under scrutiny".
  1. Luis Arreola, June 18, 2013 at 11:27 a.m.

    Germany, Brazil, Argentina have nothing to be alarmed about for missing "one" U20 but their fans, media should always show caution. These countries "expect" to make every competition and win it. Thats the bar they have set. If any one of these countries were to miss 2 consecutive tournaments like USA has done in missing U20, U17 and Olympics then certainly there would be an uproar in those countries and changes would defenitely be made. Look at brazil now. They are still a top 10 country and certainly a favorite to make top 4 in 2014 W.C. but they are heavily critisized by their fans and media because of theoir results in the last year or 2. So England is critisizing its own style of play ?? And many USA coaches look to this as a model?? Time to change. The USA U20's bring a style that adapts with the player pool and is different from most USA teams. I hope they do well to prove that point. But let's also not forget that Concacaf competition in no way compares to Euro or Conmebol. Therefore USA should at the very least have the expectation that every one of their teams makes their respective World Cups. Lets set that bar where it should be. Minimum.

  2. David Whitehouse, June 18, 2013 at 11:53 a.m.

    Don't panic - these are only youth events, and ultimately what matters is how the players do as adults.

    Worrying too much about results at this age will simply lead to selecting players who are just big, strong and fast, a point SA is constantly bemoaning.

    SA can do the soccer community a big favor by simply saying "Who Cares?". If you believe in the gospel of skill and vision don't worry so much.

  3. Luis Arreola, June 18, 2013 at 12:50 p.m.

    David, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Spain seem to be picking the right players and showing results for it at both youth and adult levels. Their vision doesnt seem to deter them from winning at both levels. I think it's a comfort level for USA fans to think the way you do. We should worry about getting the best batch of youth players to "experience" international play. What makes you think that a country that shows not to be able to compete at U17, U20, U23 level to all of a sudden do so at Men's level ?? Do they drink a magic potion after U23?? We should all care.

  4. Power Dive, June 18, 2013 at 1:31 p.m.

    I think David and Luis both have a point. I've seen the argument many times (and I think it's generally accepted among fans) that a problem with our youth development is that at a young age we chose players and teach them tactics them based on immediate/this game winning. At young ages, that results in choosing players, and teaching tactics, that result in the bigger and faster atheletes and subpar on-field tactics that rely on those physical qualities to win (the benefits of which all but vanish by the time these kids turn into adults). All of this results in "dumb" soccer players and the wrong soccer players in the player pool. To David's point, if we care so much about youth results in these tournaments, aren't we perpetuating the problem? To Luis' point, I also agree that youth success in many cases is a strong indicator of adult success (even though there are several outliers, particularly with the African nations that have had much more success at the youth levels than the full adult squad). I think the age to "switch" focuses from results for the future (i.e. picking players and choosing tactics to win 5-10 years from now) rather than for immediate next game results is somewhere after the U17 level and before the U20 level. After players have all had a chance to fully mature and develop.

  5. Luis Arreola, June 18, 2013 at 4:02 p.m.

    Power, good points. That African example is used alot when making David's point but lets also remeber that countries like Brazil, Germany, Spain, Argentina and now Mexico are consistently achieving great success in these same youth tournaments. Could it be that African teams dominate on sheer power along with great tecnicl ability but then are plagued with corruption or funds or other factors at the older ages?? I woulkd beleive that point only if these other countries results were the same. They are not. Brazil is 5 time W.C. champ and seem to always be in the mix at every level all the time. Germany and Spain now more than ever and coincidentally are also among Europe's top soccer countries at the senior level. Mexico at all levels as well from Concacaf taking out latest results from senior team. Isnt Sapin starting to look dominant at younger ages as well as of late?? Cpountries that dont prove anything at these young levels usually do the same at the senior level. That fact just doesnt back up David's notion. These tournaments are very important. Thats probably why so many top world clubs come out to scout this young talent. Dont you think??

  6. Luis Arreola, June 18, 2013 at 4:32 p.m.

    Power, actually Africa has plenty to show for "individually' and teams like Ivory Coast are always full of top talent and is always a mystery as to why they dont do better at men's world cup. USA simply does not compare "individually" to these African teams we speak of. Have we ever had a Dtogba or Eto to mention a few?? A country of our size, player pool, power should always look to compete at every age group. Do you think we would have a hard time at basketball at U17 if we picked our best players at the moment ??

  7. Power Dive, June 18, 2013 at 6:55 p.m.

    Luis, overall I can't argue with anything you said and they are all good points. With that said, I still feel like we put too much emphasis on youth results that negatively affects our adult teams. And, at a certain youth age, we need to sacrifice/not worry about current results and focus more on future results. As a possility, I'll suggest that the USA isn't far enough along on it's soccer learning curve/progession yet. For example, an Iniesta type player only looks good when he's surrounded by by Xavis, Piques, Ramoses, Fabregases, Silvas, Villas, Etc. An Iniesta type player needs smart soccer players around him to be in the right place at the right time so he can pass it to them. And, he needs them to feed him good passes at the right times. Youth Spanish/German/Brazilian/Mexican/etc. teams have this already. At the present time, we just don't have enough good players to complement Iniesta type players. For this reason, I feel that often times "soccer smart" players like Iniesta are over-looked at young ages in this country because they have nobody to pass to and get crushed by 6 foot tall 11 year olds. Our "scouts" see the 6 foot tall kid score a hattrick against 4'10'' kids, he gets plugged into our ODP system, and we lose out 10 years later. Until our youth system is dominated by technically gifted smart soccer players the superior athelete will continue to thrive. I really don't follow everything as closely, or have as much knowledge as a lot of the posters on this website, so that's just my somewhat uninformed opinion.

  8. Power Dive, June 18, 2013 at 7:12 p.m.

    Just in case Sunil is listening, I'll throw out a truly crazy idea. Our U-16 coach should be given a 4 year contract today and evaluated at its end based on the success of the U-20 team in 2017.

  9. Luis Arreola, June 18, 2013 at 7:19 p.m.

    Power, I agrre with what you mean but I think it doesnt quite pertain to the International youth level. The problem you speak of lies at the youth level within USA, especially at U8-U11. That has everything to do with our "unique" structure in soccer. We are the only country to focus on winning over development at all ages at all levels. Other countries develop the individual as main focus because that is where the money will come from. Each club promotes these individual players to showcase at U17 W.C. where many recieve their first major contract at proffessional level. In USA the money isnt as much in the individual. Its in rankings based solely on wins. We cant compare our situation with other countries because its not the same mindset. Our problems are nt theres and vice versa. If we dont hope to showcase our best talent at U17 and show a constant success rate from this age on so our best players at 16-17 years old start to get major contract offers like in those top soccer countries then we will achieve nothing in international soccer.. Afterall the best players in the world mostly get signed at those ages. We have those players Power. Look at U20's. The problem is we have different playing styles depending on the coach and the players he chooses. SPain and Brazil and Mexico all follow a defined playing style and all of their players are picked accordingly. Do we do this?? It's easy to say we are not there yet but we should first and foremost start by defaming a playing style and making sure we pick the very best regarding their affiliations or political agendas. Have we done this yet?? No. So how can we worry about step 2 or 3 now?? Surely we have smart soccer players. U20's showed this. Our scouts only look at USSF Academy at the moment or mostly. Thats 80 clubs total in a country where we have the most soccer players in the world. Fact.

  10. Power Dive, June 18, 2013 at 7:38 p.m.

    Good points again. I particularly liked the one about getting contracts at 16-17 because that's when the rest of the world is getting signed (I had never considered that before). Getting our players signed by the premier clubs in the world so they can consistently play against the world's best would be huge for us. At the moment, Bradley is probably the poster child for this notion. I've only seen our U20's play once (the impressive 3-1 loss to Mexico) but I'm getting really excited to see them perform at the WC. Hopefully they keep impressing.

  11. Luis Arreola, June 18, 2013 at 9:34 p.m.

    Power, and that's why U17 W.C. is so important. It's a chance to look at and sign this new batch of players for the best clubs in the world.

  12. David V, June 20, 2013 at 12:37 p.m.

    Great Article... First, Spain is putting itself in position to continue to win, pulling it off is one thing and putting yourself in position to win is all you can do, but England doesn't have a chance, because they are nowhere near close to putting themselves into position. Second, to be up front, I've never been a fan of English football... kick and run like a chicken with your head cut off is how we referred to this country's style of play back in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s. I don't know why Americans are enamored with England (maybe because they share the same language?). England got lucky in 1966, otherwise, they haven't done anything... why follow that poor model? These men are a credit to their country, abandon their old British philosophy... look, even top Brits (along with the rest of the world... Brazil, England, Italy, and scores of others) said a few years ago that they all must emualte Spain and the technical quality motto (Pace and power without technical quality leave you where England is today, nowhere). Claudio Reyna said the US Youth Soccer would also emulate the Spain style, an attractive attacking technical style (don't comment that Spain are boring, they are not, their frightened opponents who hunker down in the box make a game boring, not the Spaniards), he said this back in 2011. Unfortunately, too many Americans, for whatever reason, will follow whatever is taking place in England... perhaps in 5 years, when the English finally break from their philosophy, then we too, may change here in America ... it's too bad for current generation and those being born today, a generation yet to be born may finally benefit from these heroic comments made by Redknapp and others today.

    PS... a few years ago, only 2.3 brits started in the EPL, on average, per EPL team

  13. Luis Arreola, June 21, 2013 at 10:57 a.m.

    To eliminate that excuse that African teams that win these youth events and dont do as well at Men's side, can anyone mention a country that has won The men's world cup but doenst do as well at U20, U17 or Olympics ?? Brazil does well at all of these. Spain does too. Not to mention Argentina and Germany. All Men's winners and all top youth teams as well.

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