As Andy Roxburgh sat in his office at Uefa headquarters in Nyon earlier this week, catching up on his correspondence following World Cup duties in South Africa, an email landed in his inbox.
It was from a senior youth coach at the Spanish federation, and after a justifiable sentence or two of Iberian triumphalism, the writer asserted that Spain's success in South Africa was founded on the youth playing fields of Europe, at Under-16 and Under-19 tournaments where the likes of Iker Casillas, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta learned to play and, most importantly of all, win for La Roja.
It was a point of view that came as no surprise to Roxburgh, Uefa's technical director for the last 16 years. In South Africa, he had heard much the same from Casillas himself. A handful of days before Spain's captain lifted the most coveted trophy in sport, Roxburgh chatted with him and Fernando Hierro, the former Real Madrid captain now a member of his country's coaching staff, after training in Cape Town.
"He [Casillas] told me that he directly traced where he stands now back to winning the Under-16 championship in 1996, when he saved a couple of penalties in the shoot-out in the final," said Roxburgh. He runs admiringly through other names he has seen at such events over the years, the core of Spain's side. "Ask them how important the experience was. Ask Thierry Henry. He is another prime example. France won in '96 and two years later he and David Trezeguet were World Cup winners. They have all said that experience in the youth teams was vital. You can actually take it all the way back to Johan Cruyff. When he came into the Dutch senior side, the reason he said he fitted in so quickly was because of the time he had spent in the national youth teams."
Henry, who this week retired from international football as France's record goalscorer, was quick to recognise the benefit of his formative international experience. "To win it, even to participate, is something extraordinary. It is a great platform for the future," he said.
Historically, no nation has been as successful at under-19 level as England. But where their success is strictly historical, Spain's – and where better to look and learn than the world champions? – is current. They have claimed four of the last eight European Championships at this level. England last won in 1993 when a Darren Caskey goal beat Turkey at Nottingham's City Ground. Their previous success had come in 1980.
The latest instalment of the Under-19 European Championship begins tomorrow in France, with Spain opening the tournament against Croatia.
For England, there is no time to draw breath in the generation game. As the tarnished golden one is conveyed off camera, its short-comings cruelly exposed once and for all, the search for the next becomes ever more frantic. Next stop in the hunt for the future of English football comes two hours after Spain's kick-off, in Flers, a small town nestled amid the Normandy bocage, where Noel Blake's young men begin their campaign against Austria. After that it's the Netherlands, then France. It is a tough challenge, but is there hope of better times? Or is it another straw to be conveniently snatched at in the wake of South Africa?
Earlier this summer, England's Under-17 side won their continental crown, bettering Spain in the final, a success that seemed to grow in importance with every ball the seniors kicked in South Africa. Last year, the Under-19s reached their final, losing to Ukraine, and this is the third campaign in succession that they have reached the finals event. England also reached the final of the Under-21 championship last summer, before being hammered 4-0 by an outstanding German side orchestrated by Mesut Ozil.
"There is no question we are on the right path," claims Blake, a former robust centre-half with Portsmouth and Leeds. "But there is still a long way to go and a lot of work to be done. We've qualified for the last three years and this is the most intense media coverage – and that comes off the back of the World Cup."
The best known of his side is the Aston Villa striker Nathan Delfouneso, who claimed the Golden Boot in Ukraine last year, while John Bostock is Tottenham's youngest ever debutant, having played in the Uefa Cup two years ago aged 16. Josh Thompson, a centre-half, broke into the Celtic side in the second half of last season.
The importance of experience, and success, at junior level is obvious according to Roxburgh, a thoughtful and quietly passionate proponent of such tournaments who has his own experience across the international spectrum – he took Scotland to the 1990 World Cup and the 1992 European Championship. "They are vitally important," he says, "although of course I'm biased. They are a benchmark of player development. I can't understand federations or clubs that don't encourage their players to play in these tournaments. There are clubs who insist they are better off training with the first team, but the evidence is to the contrary.
"Tournament experience is vital. You can't buy it. For a start you learn to live together and you only have to look at the World Cup to see how important that is. It's not just about football, you learn how to cope with other people, learn how to live away from home for long periods. And, if you're fortunate enough, you learn how to win.
"The Spanish have been dominant for 10 years in our youth competitions and look where they are now. They have been brought up in a certain philosophy. They have been nurtured and become familiar with the philosophy and style of the national team. In Spain, you don't get clubs pulling players out of the national youth sides. The players turn up and they play properly.
"There are sporadic times when teams do well – England and Ukraine were in the final last year – but in the bigger picture it is the likes of Spain who are really impressive. And their people, not us, say that has made a massive contribution to eventually winning the World Cup."
The old club-v-country conflict is perhaps even more telling at this level than at the senior one – Tottenham backtracked quickly in the current climate after mutterings that they were to hold back their three players in the squad from a training camp.
The limited chances young English players get to feature in the Premier League first teams is another bugbear. "There are a lot of good English players in the country," says Blake. "The pathway is an issue. They show potential at this stage, and a bit younger, and for some reason there is a blockage [at club level] and we need to address that. Other nations provide pathways for players to progress."
The last time England reached the final of the Under-19 competition, in Northern Ireland four years ago, it was on the back of Matty Fryatt's goals. Fryatt, now with Leicester, has never played in the Premier League. The much heralded Connor Wickham of Ipswich won the Golden Player award at the Under-17 championship in Liechtenstein this summer, following in some adroit footsteps – Wayne Rooney, Fabregas and Toni Kroos, another youngster who was part of Germany's World Cup squad.
Roxburgh well remembers his first sighting of a 16-year-old Fabregas. He describes this small, slender youth swivelling and hitting a perfect diagonal ball 50 yards to the feet of an on-rushing team-mate. "I've still got the notes from the game. I wrote 'Keep an eye on'," he says. Sergio Ramos too shone at this level – "bombing down the right on the pitch across the road from my office." It keeps coming back to the Spanish.
"The most important thing is to establish a style that is true to how the senior side play," says Luis Milla, Spain's youth coach. "This takes a little time, but for us what matters most is trying to follow that philosophy from the top level down through the youth ranks."
Patience makes perfect perhaps, that and a clear vision and commitment to the national cause. It has helped Spain shed what became the cliched tag of perennial underachievers, and replace it with one of world and European champions.
England's Under-17 side created an impression across the continent in May, drawing admiring glances for their almost continental style of brisk passing and movement. Wickham and his team-mates, though, are still several years short of reaching the upper echelons of the game and Roxburgh believes he has already identified the next outstanding generation. It is bad news for those outside the Iberian peninsula.
"Two years ago Spain beat France in the Under-17 final in Turkey – it's the same group of players who are now at Under-19 level," says the Scot. "It is the best Spanish performance as a team collective that I have seen at any level. They look as if they will become something very special."
Where to watch it
All games are live on Eurosport. England kick off against Austria at 5pm tomorrow
The boys of '93: where are they now?
"Suddenly they are perceived as the future we have craved since 1966," The Independent's Jon Culley wrote in July 1993 after England won the under-18 European title, defeating Turkey 1-0 in the final at Nottingham Forest's City Ground. "But how many will grow up to complete the journey?" he asked.
The squad yielded five full internationals. Sol Campbell went on to captain England and has represented his country in four major tournaments. Gary Neville now has 85 England caps, a record for a right-back.
The midfielder Paul Scholes won 66 caps for England before retiring from international football aged 29, and has been one of the greatest players of his generation. His former team-mate at Manchester United, Nicky Butt, was arguably England's best player in the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan.
The prolific Robbie Fowler, who was top scorer in the 1993 tournament with five goals, won 26 caps for his country and scored 183 goals for Liverpool. Kevin Gallen, Julian Joachim, and Chris Day never won a full cap for their country but enjoyed memorable careers at club level.
Unfortunately, there are always casualties at youth level. The captain Darren Caskey, who scored the winner in the final, now plays for Ilkeston Town after never really fulfilling his potential with Tottenham and Reading. Left-back Kevin Sharp is currently player-coach at Harrogate Town, while Mark Tinkler now turns out for Whitby Town. The defender Chris Casper had to retire at the age of 24 after breaking his leg and is now a youth coach at Manchester United.
Meet the players
Declan Rudd (Norwich)
The tall keeper earned a clean sheet on his club debut, a 4-0 win against Leyton Orient last September.
Lee Nicholls (Wigan)
Recently won praise from his club manager, Roberto Martinez, who said he had been "fantastic" last season.
Reece Brown (Man Utd)
The younger brother of Wes, Reece made his debut in the England's under-19 squad in a 3-1 victory over Finland in September 2009.
Matthew Briggs (Fulham)
Briggs became the youngest defender to play in a Premier League match, at 16 years and 65 days old, on 13 May 2007.
Steven Caulker (Tottenham)
Spent last season on loan at Yeovil and started 44 of the Glovers' 45 league games. Has been loaned out to Leeds United for the coming season.
Nathan Baker (Aston Villa)
Central defender signed for Villa as a 13-year-old. Made 18 appearances for Lincoln on loan last season.
Nathaniel Clyne (Crystal Palace)
The right-back has been ever-present in the Eagles side over the past two seasons.
Thomas Cruise (Arsenal)
Started in the 1-0 defeat to Olympiakos in the Champions League last season.
Josh Thompson (Celtic)
The tall centre-half played 20 times for the Glasgow club last season, breaking into the first team. Scored his first goal for the Bhoys in March against St Johnstone.
Matthew James (Man Utd)
Scored within 10 minutes of taking the field on his debut on loan at Preston North End in February.
Jacob Mellis (Chelsea)
The 19-year-old has made six appearances for the under-19 national side, scoring four times. He spent last season on loan at Southampton.
Dean Parrett (Tottenham)
Has scored four goals in eight games for the under-19s having made his Spurs debut against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Uefa Cup in February 2009.
John Bostock (Tottenham)
Moved to Spurs for a reported £1m in June 2008. The former Crystal Palace player became Tottenham's youngest ever debutant when coming on aged 16 years, 295 days against Dynamo Zagreb.
Matt Phillips (Wycombe)
Scored his first goal for his club in November 2008 and won the League Two Apprentice of the Year last season.
Ryan Donaldson (Newcastle)
Has won 15 caps for England under-17s, scoring 10 goals. He has one goal in his six games for the under-19s.
Ryan Noble (Sunderland)
The local lad made his debut for Sunderland against Barrow in the FA Cup in January.
Nathan Delfouneso (Aston Villa)
Has already made 24 appearances for Villa, scoring six goals. The talented forward will be one of the players to watch in the tournament.
Frank Nouble (West Ham)
Joined the Hammers on a five-year deal from Chelsea last summer. He made his Premier League debut for the club three weeks later.Reuse content