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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”