Soccer's protective pall is holding back what it needs -- more teenaged stars

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 Austria.

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 twice.

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 have been.

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.
21 comments about "Soccer's protective pall is holding back what it needs -- more teenaged stars ".
  1. steve chamberland, March 24, 2016 at 3:55 p.m.

    maybe the few that have made it were not the norm diference between a 17-18yrs and 21-23yrs is night and day in most cases

  2. Tom Maegerle, March 24, 2016 at 3:58 p.m.

    Hello Paul,
    If you take a moment to step back from your male-centric view of the footballing world, you can see that the USWNT has had several teenage stars over the years, starting with Mia Hamm through Mallory Pugh.

  3. Brian Something replied, March 24, 2016 at 4:33 p.m.

    Which begs the question: why is our player development model based on the male side, when it's the female side - alone - that's been wildly successful...

  4. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, March 24, 2016 at 6:45 p.m.

    We are more successful in the women's game because take women's soccer more seriously than most other countries. Not because of some magic in player development. Most USWNT play four years of college soccer but having our elite male play in the wasteland of the NCAA is surely not a prescription for success.

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, March 25, 2016 at 9:15 a.m.

    The US WMNT had "several teenage stars" at the beginning and many over the years. Their first match was relatively recently played in 1985 and the teams have been relatively young and more dependent on college players than the MNT is currently. Hamm's distinction, and Aker's, is that they are two of the best players of all time of either gender. And the only US players of that quality.

  6. Glenn Auve, March 24, 2016 at 5 p.m.

    Is the aim to produce another Pele or good pro players? Diego Fagundez was pretty good at a very early age and is still. Or Andy Najar who was a pretty good teenager, he was probably the best player on a pretty bad DCU team. Wasn't Messi good as a teenager? I think for the Big Teams there's less of a chance of teenage players rising through the ranks since they already have so many stars who would need to be displaced that are making a huge amount of money. Ownership wants to see their investment in those players come to fruition.

  7. Scott Johnson, March 24, 2016 at 6:43 p.m.

    Many sports, especially on the men's side, seem to exclude teenage boys and younger men from the top levels of competition. The NFL isn't generally interested if you're not at least a college junior. MLB and soccer keep younger men in junior teams/minor leagues, it's rare for someone under 23 to be found on a first team. Basketball used to let high-schoolers in, and they did well, but has since dialed that a bit, though there are still competent 19-year-olds in the NBA. Women seem to hit peak physical maturity earlier--many individual women's sports in the Olympics are dominated by teenage girls.

  8. Mark Landefeld, March 24, 2016 at 7:08 p.m.

    Two words ... Freddy Adu

  9. John Schultz, March 24, 2016 at 11:37 p.m.

    Pointing at Freddy Adu as an example could be misleading. I would point at the geniuses who claimed he was the next Pele and not have them evaluate talent ever again. Overthinking is certainly holding the next Pele while at the same time helping others transition better into the Pro ranks. I happen to think all these Academies are the ones to blame for not developing the true magical stars that we so much love to see. That magic is learned and developed in open play with players and watchers that encourage creativity, flair, etc.

  10. Wooden Ships replied, March 25, 2016 at 12:38 a.m.

    I agree with you John. Coaching and playing in soccer is the only paradoxical sport out there. The more coaching and instruction that occurs has an equal and opposite effect on individual creativity-initiative and courage. Coaches don't make players.

  11. Jogo Bonito, March 25, 2016 at 1:14 a.m.

    wbnxitp1273 ocedgl580

    Tom Maegerle .. A columnist is writer that has been highly respected for their experience and knowledge of a subject that they have been given license to write about whatever they want. They provide insight and opinion. Often their opinions will provoke discussions. Many will agree and many will disagree with the columnist, but a columnist has no obligation to cover anything he doesn't have interest in. There's no Title 9 for columnists. Paul has zero interest in the women's game and probably will never write about it. Soccer America does a great job covering the women's game. I enjoy PG's columns more than anything else SA does. I appreciate the women's game but I don't expect PG to even include it in the conversation.

  12. Bob Ashpole, March 25, 2016 at 8:56 a.m.

    When you are talking about a coach's motivation, I think you have to include the coach's willingness to risk his job. When a young player given a first team chance does not succeed, the coach is much more likely to be blamed for poor performance than the player and risks losing his job if match results are not obtained. In 1950 the players still had control of the game. After Pele did not play in Brazil's first match at the finals, the players insisted that he start the second match. The 1950 Brazil team had many great players so Pele did not carry the team and wasn't even the best player on that team. A teen playing means an older player does not. How likely are professional players to do that today, or even then for that matter?

  13. Wooden Ships replied, March 25, 2016 at 11:06 a.m.

    Agreed Bob. In playing younger ones its not the players along side that make that decision. It's human nature to protects "yours". That's what we lack in many leaders today, not just soccer, are confident risk takers. It seems our coaches aren't risk takers, therefore our players aren't either.

  14. Wooden Ships replied, March 25, 2016 at 1:03 p.m.

    I struggle a bit AA with mandating that the MLS should field less talented players during a game. You might be correct but, if the team had deeper pockets they would go after more skilled players, mostly not US born or certainly groomed in the clubs we have today. Also, how much better would some of these guys get with playing time. The technical and quality touches either develop or not before that age. Same with intuitiveness and industriousness. For me, I like your position against the pay to play model. Asking a for profit pro league to do what should have been done years prior is like going through the service entrance. I know we want our men's national team to be stronger, but I don't see how the MLS can do that. I do have to put on my thinking cap when reading your's and others comments on these subjects.

  15. Wooden Ships replied, March 25, 2016 at 4:58 p.m.

    I'm not blaming Klinnsmann's. I do disagree with many players selections and style. If we have talented enough players at the MLS level and many of the coaches are former US players or at least citizens with many years of coaching here, why aren't they using them? I do concede that Mexico has signed many young players from the states and that's alright with me. It does demonstrate that maybe our domestic pro coaches don't recognize talent when its right in front of them, scouts too. I believe we have many technically skilled players that don't fit whatever mindset MLS has. I sure have witnessed that with my general manager days and college coaching days. Mostly this country is still focused on stronger, taller and faster. Anyway, I'll go along with the mandate, especially if we are still dominated in the coaching ranks with coaches and scouts that wouldn't recognize a total footballer if it hit them in the face.

  16. Wooden Ships replied, March 25, 2016 at 6:07 p.m.

    AA, I'll get back after the US/Columbia match. 1-0 us at half. We are looking a little heat weary though.

  17. Kenneth Osgood, March 25, 2016 at 10:31 a.m.

    I think it has more to do with modern player movement than player development.
    The modern day equivalent of Pele or Maradona would have been sold to a big European club as soon as he was sufficiently valuable, and he would stay in the reserves or youth sides until he'd actually pushed past all the older players in front of him. Also scouting has come a long way since Pele's day. Had he grown up in Amazonas or Bahia instead of Sao Paulo would he have even been in the squad in '58?

  18. Pasco Struhs, March 25, 2016 at 11:22 a.m.

    Paul, I don't understand your rationale about protecting young players. Where did you get that idea from? What are they being protected from? Success breeds success. Your "protection" rationale doesn't make any logical sense. More likely, the reason younger players aren't being called up is the thinking amongst coaches that their more experienced (not to mention physically bigger) players will perform better in an important game. I'm not suggesting that rationale is always correct, just that that is likely the reason, not some idea that keeping young players out of games is protective of them. Klinsmann chose to bring Julien Green rather than Landon Donovan to the World Cup. In making that decision, he certainly wasn't concerned about whether Green was or wasn't being protected (from what?). He chose green because he saw young talent and wanted to bind him to play for the US. Many, including myself, criticized him (on a variety of levels) for this decision, but whether or not Green was at risk and needed protection never entered his thought process.

  19. BJ Genovese, March 26, 2016 at 1:12 p.m.

    They are definetly out there. I have watched my now 17 year old in programs like ODP, PDP, ID2 over the last 4 years. These players do exist. But US soccer identifies players that grow and dominate early. They get a head of steam at 13-14 and ride it into there twenties. Thats how the system is set up. Scouts using the identification of previous scouts to do there job. Coaches doing the same. Identification that gives you that steam really stops at 14. There are still things available but the identifications really just hits a logjam. Academies only cover so much area and are not residential. Clubs could care less about identifications because they recieve no compesation even if they do ID and promote a star 10. They will just lose them to the nearest academy for nothing. We have players like Quinter (Columbias 5'6" number 10) its that coaches and scouts either have to much to lose (there jobs) or they dont have the knowledge to choose them over a player that is going to physically get them a win at the youth ranks. Its quite a sad sitation because if you dont get identified and you are a player with bucketloads of technical skill but no big and strong than you are left to only try and play college ball. And those coaches are so bad they dont even go to showcases even if they are listed on the tournies web page as a coach in attandance. The soccer landscape is still so screwed up even after for years. Yes they have systems in place (academies) but in this huge country they have to be better. more TC's more US soccer POOL tryouts and more A,B,C team camps.

  20. KC Soccer Dad, March 28, 2016 at 9:36 a.m.

    Yawn. There have been numerous young players make their debuts. Paul Gardner is just too lazy to list and analyze them. Coaches want to win. The simple answer is that if the coaches think the young players will help them win, they will play.

    Young players make their way in individual sports from time to time--swimming, golf and tennis come to mind. But few make such a big mark that they hold a place at the top immediately after a meteoric rise.

  21. Scot Sutherland, April 11, 2016 at 5:31 p.m.

    PG. I think this article relates to an earlier article on coaching. The more coaches are involved in the game, the less likely it will be that youngsters get a chance. Youngsters are better at instinctual ideas and not as good at collective awareness. Gyassi Zardes provides a visible example. He's doing well, but that penchant for the unexpected and flair for the flamboyant has been coached away. He plays more like an automaton now.

    I liked him better when he was audacious and not so focused on fitting in.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications