England's weakened team risk U-20 World Cup flop
With clubs loath to release players before the season's start, a second-choice squad could struggle in Colombia
There is some entertaining footage on the Football Association's website which captures the arrival of the England squad on Tuesday for the Under-20s World Cup in Colombia when they were greeted by a dance display from – of all people – the Colombian police force. After initial bemusement most of the squad acquiesce to the invitations from the female officers to join them and the arrivals hall at Medellin airport improbably becomes one large couples' dancefloor.
Sadly for all concerned, Stuart "Psycho" Pearce, the England Under-21s coach who is also part of the Under-20s coaching team, remained a wallflower throughout. The sight of Psycho doing the salsa with a green-uniformed Colombian law enforcer would have been one of the sporting highlights of the summer.
The Under-20s World Cup is a major Fifa tournament that has given the likes of Diego Maradona, Luis Figo, Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas their first experience of international tournaments. Sadly for England, it has never been taken seriously in this country and despite the FA's best efforts that looks unlikely to change.
With respect to the 21 young men who have travelled to Colombia, they do not represent the cream of the English football's crop. There are a few names such as Matt Phillips, the Blackpool striker, who impressed in the Premier League last season and Reece Brown, brother of Wes, who is the only Manchester United representative in the squad. Apart from that, there is the distinct feeling that this was the best squad the FA could cobble together in the circumstances.
The likes of Phil Jones, Nathan Delfouneso, Jack Rodwell and Connor Wickham are all eligible to play in the tournament but none of them is on the trip. Those four were part of the England Under-21s squad that played at the European Championships last month and the FA know that they would be pushing their luck to request the same players twice in one summer.
The timing does not help either. Clubs are now well into their pre-season and reluctant to release key players from tours. Already this summer there has been an Under-21s and Under-19s tournament, the latter was the European Championships pre-qualifier in Switzerland last month. The Under-17s reached the semi-finals of their World Cup earlier this month. It has not been a bad year for the FA's junior teams, but the Under-20s come a distant fourth.
Another key problem is that the Under-20s World Cup, although prestigious, is not included in the Fifa calendar which means that clubs are not obliged to release players as they are for other internationals. The Under-20s coach Brian Eastick had his eye on the likes of Jay Spearing (Liverpool), Benik Afobe (Arsenal) and George Thorne (West Bromwich Albion) but could not secure their release. Considering that there is an overlap with the start of the Football League season, there was no chance of persuading Championship clubs to part with players such as Watford's Marvin Sordell.
There is a general consensus at the FA that this squad is a vast improvement on the one that went to the last Under-20s World Cup in Egypt two years ago, which was unhelpfully held in October. That group was shamefully weak and managed a draw with Uzbekistan and defeats to Ghana and Uruguay. However, if the current team cannot beat North Korea in their first game tomorrow, then there will not be much hope held out for them.
This year, England are in a tough group with Argentina and Mexico. Argentina have the highly-rated Juan Iturbe in their squad, the 18-year-old who has just joined Porto from Quilmes in Argentina. Spain, who were so impressive winning the Under-21s European championships, have Real Madrid's Sergio Canales, Dani Pacheco (Liverpool) and Malaga's highly-rated youngsters Marc Bartra and Recio.
Sadly for England, there is no-one with that kind of profile in their squad. Between them there is a fair bit of experience on loan at lower league sides but when you tot up their first-team appearances for their current parent clubs you get to 48 – and 22 of them are by Phillips for Blackpool.
The England team has prepared for the tournament in Denver, in the United States, where they beat Australia, also competing in Colombia. There is recognition that in South and central America especially, the Under-20s World Cup is taken very seriously. In recent decades, the FA have focused on Under-21s football and having taken a strong squad – minus Jack Wilshere – to last month's European Championships they have to accept that circumstances mean that the Under-20s will not be so good.
For those young players in Colombia this is a difficult stage in their careers. Many have graduated from the academies at their respective clubs but are still well short of establishing themselves in the first team. This World Cup will be a welcome distraction, especially the dancing female police officers, but first they need a good result against North Korea.
England dance their way through security in Colombia...
England Under-20 squad
(First-team appearances are for their parent club – figures do not include loan appearances)
Jack Butland, Birmingham 0 apps, age 18
Lee Nicholls, Wigan Athletic 0/18
Jak Alnwick, Newcastle United 0/18
Blair Adams, Sunderland 0/19
Nathan Baker, Aston Villa 4/20
Ben Gordon, Chelsea 0/20
James Hurst, West Bromwich Albion 3/19
Adam Smith, Tottenham Hotspur 0/20
George Taft, Leicester City 0/17
Reece Wabara, Manchester City 0/19
Reece Brown, Manchester United 0/18
Billy Knott, Sunderland 0/18
Jason Lowe, Blackburn Rovers 1/19
Dean Parrett, Tottenham Hotspur 2/19
James Wallace, Everton 1/19
Saido Berahino, West Bromwich 0/18
Callum McManaman, Wigan Athletic 8/20
Josh Morris, Blackburn Rovers 5/19
Michael Ngoo, Liverpool 0/18
Ryan Noble, Sunderland 3/20
Matt Phillips, Blackpool 22/20
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