By Paul Gardner
Are teenage players getting a fair shake?
How is it that there are so few teenage stars in pro soccer? Are the young players simply not there?
Unlikely, in my opinion. Or could it be that the modern game of soccer doesn’t know how to handle outstanding youngsters? Much more likely, I’d say.
We had the Pele phenomenon
in 1958. A 17-year-old who scored six goals for Brazil in that year’s World Cup and became a vital player on a team that was already full of brilliance. In fact, with a hat trick in the
semifinal against France, and two more goals in the final against Sweden, it was not much of an exaggeration to say that Pele -- at 17 -- had given Brazil its first-ever World Cup triumph.
At the time, I recall a widespread admiration for Pele, plus a feeling that he had broken a barrier, and that a steady flow of brilliant teenagers would follow.
So much for that. It is
chastening -- quite shocking, really -- to realize that in 58 years no teenager has even come close to repeating Pele’s triumph.
During all those years, not a single teenage soccer
player has ever been able to make any impression on a World Cup tournament. That certainly emphasizes the brilliance of Pele. But it doesn’t sound right. Something must be wrong somewhere.
That may well be. It could be that teenage players are being denied the chance to prove their worth. Not, of course, as part of a deliberate anti-youth policy by the sport. Rather the opposite.
The modern game now knows a great deal about “youth development,” it has armies of highly qualified experts offering advice on the dangers involved in pushing boys too hard, too soon.
Obviously, it was a simpler world in 1958. The Brazil coach, Vicente Feola, actually had another teenager on his team, 19-year-old Jose Altafini, who scored twice in a 3-0 win over
Twenty years later, things had changed mightily. The 1978 World Cup in Argentina was coming up. And an Argentine teenage wonder, Diego Maradona, was causing a stir. He was
already, at age 16, a starter for Argentinos Juniors, he was scoring spectacular goals. In a 1977 interview, Coach Cesar Menotti teasingly dodged all my questions about Maradona’s chances of
making the team. “We shall see,” was about as far as I could get.
Maradona did not make the team. Menotti, we were told, thought he wasn’t ready yet. But Argentina won
the World Cup without him, so no one really argued the point. Maradona’s World Cup triumph came in 1986 -- when he was
Has the attitude to starlets become over
protective? The case can certainly be made. In other words, we see fewer teenage stars nowadays. Modern “youth-development” thinking holds them back.
The topic of teenagers
has been in the news lately because of the goal-scoring exploits of Manchester United’s 18-year-old Marcus Rashford. An interesting story, this. Rashford got his chance to shine only because of
a freak injury to a teammate -- the 20-year-old Anthony Martial -- who was injured during the warm-up immediately before a game against the Danish team Midtjylland. Rashford played, and scored
He certainly did not look like a nervous, over-awed kid. He has scored three more goals -- two in a 3-2 win over Arsenal, and the lone goal with which ManU beat ManCity. That game
was the Manchester derby, one of those supposedly “white-hot” local derbies that, we are told, are only for the brave-hearted and the tough-bodied.
Suppose Martial had not
picked up that unlikely injury -- would Rashford still be an unknown teenager waiting on the bench? And waiting for how long?
The English press, never satisfied with its underperforming
national team, was quick to suggest that Rashford should be called up by coach Roy Hodgson as a member of the England team participating in Euro 2016.
The protective pall that covers
young players was quickly in evidence. No, said Manchester United academy coach Nicky Butt. It was too early for that and it might hurt the player's development.
It might. And who would
want to do that? But there is also the possibility that reluctance to allow an exceptionally talented youngster to move up as soon as possible may be equally damaging to his development.
We have had experience of this process in the career of Freddy Adu. It seemed to me that, at D.C.United, Coach Peter Nowak was always uncertain how to handle the boy. He veered between playing him and
not playing him. What else could he do? I doubt whether any coach would have been prepared to guarantee Adu a first-team place. Adu’s subsequent career can only leave one pondering what might
An irony -- though some saw it as an omen -- accompanying the arrival of Rashford concerned his substitution at the 80th minute of his debut game. He was replaced by
21-year-old Adnan Januzaj -- a player who had made his first appearance for United in 2013 as a 17-year-old. He too had received
extravagant praise -- but he has subsequently struggled to claim
a place on the first team.
I don’t see any easy answer to this difficulty: deciding whether protective caution or risk-taking exposure is the right way to handle teenage phenoms. I
suppose there is a pendulum at work here, and my feeling is that it has, probably under the influence of academic theorists, swung too far over towards caution.
If I’m right
then, unless the pendulum swings back, we shall not be seeing many, if any, teenage stars. Because those extra years spent under the well-meaning protective eyes of the coaches mean a loss, or
suppression, of teenage exuberance and its replacement by the rigid orthodoxies of coaching. Or koaching, as I prefer to call it, to distinguish between good and bad coaching. Koaching will probably
mean the emergence of a good player, but not a Pele or a Maradona.
The decision between protection and exposure must, I think, be different for each player. Ideally, it would be made by
someone -- presumably, but not necessarily, a coach -- who knows a lot about the individual boy, his talent, his personality, his strengths, his weaknesses and so on. I feel there has to be a human
touch here -- I cannot see a computer, or its accompanying nerd, getting this right.
My preference is for less caution, more willingness to give youth a chance. Such an attitude would
have to be accompanied by expert advice -- not for the decision-making, but to provide support if things do not work out.
I feel sure that soccer would be an improved sport with more
teenage stars. They bring freshness, liveliness, and the excitement of unpredictability. As things stand, youngsters are being denied the chance to show their skills. And fans are being denied the
unique enjoyment of watching them.