Commentary

Diverse England U-17s usher in a new era

American fans who assume a bright future for the national team in the wake of success at the U-17 and U-20 levels should be warned: there isn’t necessarily any correlation.

England is going through the same process. It captured the U-20 World Cup in June and on Saturday its U-17s battle Spain --- to which it lost the European U-17 final in May on penalty kicks – in the World Cup final. More than 50 years after England won its only World Cup, hope abounds that these two crops of young players will trigger strong challenges in 2022, 2026 and 2030.

Well, maybe. The lists of U-17 and U-20 world champions are rife with nations that haven’t come close to lifting the World Cup, and even older teams -- Olympic (U-23) champions Nigeria (1996) and Cameroon (2000) -- have faltered well short of the sport’s biggest prize. The U.S. teams that reached the U-20 quarterfinals the past two tournaments and the U-17s that reached the same stage earlier this month offer encouragement that someday they can emulate those feats at the senior level, which only the U.S. 2002 World Cup team has achieved on the men’s side. (The 1930 semifinal appearance in a 13-team competition is a little too far back to be included in the modern era.)

Brazil’s U-17s and U-20s did the double in 2003 but have also ranked among the world’s elite since the start of international competition a century ago. Ironically, it wasn’t until the Olympics last year that Brazil added the gold medal in that competition to its list of titles and that was as the host nation and via a penalty-kick shootout with Germany. Of those Brazil U-20s, only Dani Alves and Fernandinho graduated to the senior level.

One encouraging aspect of the English U-17s is the diverse makeup of the squad: of the 11 players who started in a 3-1 semifinal defeat of Brazil on Wednesday, eight are of black/Asian/minority ethnic (BAME) descent, as are five others on the 21-man roster. One of the BAME brigade, forward Rhian Brewster, shot to the top of the scorers list with seven goals by bagging back-to-back hat tricks against the U.S. and Brazil.

This English U-17 team is not an outlier in its domestic league, which draws players from all over the world. The percentage of non-white Premier League players has doubled, from 16 percent to 33 percent, by some estimates since it launched in 1992. About 40 years ago, Benjamin Odeje, Laurie Cunningham and Viv Anderson broke the barrier of black players representing England.

“It’s just the norm now,” agent Cyrille Regis told the Guardian, who played in the England team that reached the 1980 U-21 European Championship semi-finals and won five senior caps. “In any club or academy these days black players are judged on whether they can play football and nothing else. That’s a real sign of how things have changed.”

England U-17 manager Steve Cooper grew up with the game -- his father, Keith Cooper, refereed for many years in the old First Division and then the Premier League -- and thinks the players are well-positioned for success down the road, which is really how development programs should be judged.

“I really believe in not just this group of players but all of the England teams,” he said. “We have talent throughout the system and talent with potential as well. They are performing well now but I see longevity in the performances which really is the exciting bit.”

Critics claim the English FA, like U.S. Soccer, hasn’t done enough for domestic players as its domestic league has flourished even though the primary objectives of a pro league and national federation differ. Regis believes the momentum may be turning in the right direction.

“It shows that the FA is doing something right,” said Regis, who in his work as an agent mentors young players. “The next level is how many can go on and have long established careers? Playing for England is fantastic at that age but they need to be given opportunities.”

Cooper is of the opinion that success at the U-17 and U-20 levels, spurred by products of English club academies, could start swinging the pendulum in favor of domestic players rather than a preference for, and reliance on, foreign players. Much of the appeal of England’s top league, say some critics, is that it doesn’t have all that many English players.

“To think that we would be the holder of the two development World Cups would be an amazing achievement, but I also think you have to look a bit further than that,” said Cooper, who holds a UEFA coaching license and has coached at Wrexham and Liverpool. “It’s also great recognition for what is going on with youth academies and the England teams, the work that is being done and it’s really showcasing the talent and the potential these boys have.

“We’ve played with real pride, real passion but with real expertise and the ideas we’re implementing as well. I take great pride in that and just really hope that we can see this through.”
11 comments about "Diverse England U-17s usher in a new era".
  1. R2 Dad, October 28, 2017 at 1:08 a.m.

    Englands most promising junior player, Jadon Sancho, just signed for Dortmund. Maybe that path will provide the most opportunity, as few English youth players are coming up through their academies anymore. The big challenge is getting these 17-20YO players enough minutes against good competitiion in order to keep developing.

  2. feliks fuksman, October 28, 2017 at 6:59 a.m.

    Looking forward to see this good potential players as they mature and are given chances on the higher level, whwreever it may be.⚽️⚽️⚽️

  3. Tyler Wells, October 28, 2017 at 7:59 a.m.

    This is a bizarre definition of diversity.  The ethnic group that makes up 87% of the country only made up 27% of the starting lineup and that is something to be trumpeted?  I'm not saying that it is either good or bad, only that it isn't very diverse.

  4. Right Winger replied, October 28, 2017 at 9:26 p.m.

    What's your point?

  5. John Nelson, October 28, 2017 at 10:23 a.m.

    Why does the ethnic origin of the English players matter?  A player’s a player.  The ball doesn’t care about the skin color of the player kicking it.  The racial stuff is a bunch of poppycock.

  6. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, October 28, 2017 at 6:24 p.m.

    I guess the point of the article is that previously overlooked segments of English society are now being scouted and brought into the game in a way they weren't previously and that this has resulted in more players from that portion of society than there were previously.  It's always better to have more players to choose from.

    People say the same thing here about Hispanic players.  I think they're right to an extent too.  What I don't have patience for is when some posters perpetuate this myth that Hispanic players are disporpotinately skillful or creative.  There's no basis to say that and it's racist.

  7. Al Gebra replied, October 29, 2017 at 6:11 p.m.

    Fire Paul Gardner Now should take a big ol' dump before he writes anything.

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, October 30, 2017 at 1:09 a.m.

    Al Gebra is not only a troll, but he is not registered with the forum either.

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, October 30, 2017 at 1:12 a.m.

    My mistake. Al Gebra is registered under a different name.

  10. R2 Dad, October 28, 2017 at 6:14 p.m.

    Tyler and John, you're both right. But clearly Diversity is a relative thing, as is Opportunity. I was reading about Adebayo Akinfenwa, who is a journeyman in England, who has seen the ugly side of football racism in Europe and in England.  He sees the progress that these U17s take for granted, and that's a good thing that these kids, and their FA, have gotten beyond skin color. As far as numbers go, the percentages shouldn't really matter as long as the cream is allowed to rise to the top. Phil Fodden is one of the few white guys on that team, but he's also the captain and has a bright future. Journalists are focusing on the percentages because maybe we're not seeing that diversity in the squad nor in the coaching ranks at the highest levels.

  11. Andrew Kear, October 31, 2017 at 11:18 p.m.

    Everyone and everything associated with the USMNT is in a slump. The new America soccer malaise has begun. 

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