Brazilian youngsters will test England's potential for greatness

The Nationwide Under-17 tournament can prove if the Premiership clubs' academies are 'the best grass-roots development in the world'
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Gerard Houllier believes that what separates England from the other European footballing powers is that they have twice as many high-class players around the age of 20 as anybody else. This fact alone, says the Liverpool manager, means that England must be one of the favourites to win the 2006 World Cup.

The generation behind the Joe Coles and the Michael Carricks will have their mettle tested at the Reebok Stadium, Bolton, on Sunday when England take on Brazil in the Nationwide Under-17 Tourna- ment, which also involves Italy.

Judged just on the scoreline, the opening game, played at Wigan on Wednesday night in front of 5,600 spectators, was not a success. The Italians, adopting tactics their seniors would recognise, absorbed pressure and surrendered territorial advantage but still won a high-class contest 2-1. Brazil, who won the tournament last year, should prove even tougher.

"They will be very difficult to compete against, especially since the first match has taken a lot out of our boys," remarked the England Under-17 coach, Les Reed. "The Brazilians benefit from a sense of great national pride which means if the coach wants players for six weeks he can have them. They will be very, very well-prepared."

Nevertheless, as Reed points out, these contests are more than about deciding winners and losers; the tournament is about preparation and experience with the model based firmly on the French system developed by Houllier at Clairefontaine. Reed noted that, by the age of 28, Zinedine Zidane had taken part in 93 internationals, 36 of them at youth level. A decade ago, they talked about a "technical gap" between English and Continental schoolboy football that was never entirely closed by the time full internationals came around.

"We have made great strides in the last few years. The academies and centres of excellence set up by clubs have actually got the kids working hard two or three times a week on the technical side of the game," said Reed. "I have been showing them films all week of how Portugal play and how Luis Figo interacts with his team-mates, but I will say that our midfielders are as good as you'll find at this age group anywhere in the world."

It does not necessarily follow that Dorryl Proffitt, whose deliciously agile equaliser gave England hope of a point on Wednesday, will lead the attack in the 2010 World Cup or that Arsenal's Dorian Small will fill the boots of Adams and Keown. Of the two England sides that made it to the semi-finals of the World Youth Cup in 1981 and again a dozen years later, only Neil Webb and Nick Barmby had a significant senior international career. However, the England sides that won the European Youth Championship four times in five years during the 1970s included Bryan Robson, Glenn Hoddle, Ray Wilkins and Trevor Francis. You never can tell.

The development of acad-emies and the buying up of the best young talent by the big clubs means that none of those who took the field on Wednesday night came from teams from outside last season's Premiership. As in the senior squad, Manchester and Merseyside dominate, although, curiously, for the Under-16s it is Manchester City and Everton, not United and Liverpool, who have provided half the team.

The one area in which Reed thinks there is room for improvement is in coaching. "We still have some way to go to be among the best in Europe. We have to make our coaches more roundly educated," he said. "The modern coach is a teacher, a psychologist as well as a footballer. But in the senior squads we have young players coming through quicker than we would probably like.

"Jacques Courvoisier, who did my job with the French Federation and who Gérard Houllier has taken to Liverpool, went to Uefa [European football's governing body] for a year to look at grass-roots football and he thinks we have got the best grass-roots development in the world. Now that is a great compliment."