Self-interest threatens England's progress

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The Independent Football

Amid all the latest upheavals at the Football Association, it may have gone unnoticed that England are playing a World Cup game today. Not Sven Goran Eriksson's senior team, of course, but the Under-20 squad who open their account against Japan in this oil-rich kingdom hoping to reach the knock-out stage of an event that was postponed from May because of the war in Iraq.

The sport's world governing body, Fifa, rates the 24-nation World Youth Cup as second only to the World Cup proper in terms of prestige. A slightly exaggerated assessment, perhaps, but this is the tournament where many of the world's finest footballers cut their teeth and certainly the next three weeks in the United Arab Emirates represent an ideal opportunity to experience the cutting edge of international football.

Which is perhaps why Les Reed, the England coach, is not entirely happy with the short-sighted attitude of clubs who have refused to released players for the group games against Japan, Egypt and Colombia.

Reed says the clubs are simply not taking the event seriously enough, forcing him to work with a below-strength squad whose oldest player is Arsenal's Jerome Thomas and whose most recognisable names are Blackburn's James McEveley and Michael Chopra of Newcastle.

"We don't seem to give it as much credibility as the rest of the world," Reed said. "We've tended to become fairly insular in terms of our domestic football. We focus far too much on the first team. Everywhere else this tournament is part of the football fever, especially in South America. Perhaps we need to win it to make people aware of it."

To illustrate his point, James Milner, one of the most talented young players in the country, withdrew only four days ago when Leeds United refused to release him. It left Reed a man short, a farcical situation for such a significant international tournament, to be televised across the world.

"We spent two months negotiating with the clubs and there are perhaps 20 to 30 eligible players who I could have taken," Reed said. "In the end I picked the best squad I could in the circumstances. The squad is potentially excellent but it's very young compared with some of the other sides."

England have failed to set the world alight since reaching the semi-finals in 1992, but, with more than 50,000 British expatriates working in the Gulf, are assured of strong support. Confidence is high among a group of players following in the footsteps of Diego Maradona, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Luis Figo, all of whom used the event to announce their arrival on the world stage.

Nevertheless, the coach says his squad will do well to reach the last eight. "With some other countries such as Brazil, there seems to be a direct correlation between players who have medals in this competition and those who have medals from the big one," Reed explained. "Our research shows that the real winners are countries who have built up a bank of experience by sending their top players to tournaments such as this."

Japan could pose the biggest threat to England at their opening game at the sold-out 12,000-capacity Al-Maktoum stadium tonight. "They have been preparing for this competition for a long time," Reed said. "Egypt will be boosted by local support, while we expect the Colombians to be technically adroit. Having said all that, from a player development perspective, it will be an excellent experience for our squad."