The Last Word: Spain's success is ageless but England are stuck in the past
Continuity drives the Iberian gold rush with Under-20s and Under-21s run by the same coach
While England wallow in the pity of being relegated to 15th in Fifa's world rankings this weekend, behind Greece, Belgium and Bosnia in a system which will probably determine the seedings at the next World Cup, Spain have been at it again – contesting the quarter-finals of the Under-20 World Cup in Istanbul last night, having previously won the Under-21 European edition.
Blame the foreigners, you might say, the ones blocking off the places in the Premier League first teams from young Englishmen. And up to a point you would be right. Premier League academy directors will tell you that the Dario Gradis of this world will charge £4 million for a player from Crewe whose equivalent can be picked up for £400,000 from Celta Vigo. The Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore, dismisses talk of the Premier League damaging the national team as "absolute nonsense", yet his own organisation's figures reveal that 43 homegrown Under-21s made Premier League first-team appearances in 2011-12.
But it's not quite as straightforward as all that. Delve into the fine detail of another golden Spanish summer and you will find the story of why their international system is in a different orbit to England's.
The individual at the heart of it all has been Julen Lopetegui, who had no sooner coached the Under-21s to success in Israel than he was on a plane to Istanbul with his No 2, Santi Denia, to run the Under-20s. Lopetegui manages both age groups, and by not even making it back to Spain to celebrate the Under-21s win, he arrived in time for the first Under-20s game.
The England Under-20s manager, Brian Eastick, also started his summer in Israel, assisting in the running of the Under-21 team, who were actually managed by someone else – Stuart Pearce. This meant a temporary manager, Peter Taylor, had to be installed to run Eastick's Under-20s in a World Cup campaign which ended in ignominy. It wasn't quite the Spanish way.
"Joined up" doesn't even begin to describe the consistency of the Spanish system, with principles inculcated throughout the international age- groups. The coaches of all these age-groups must live within a 40-mile radius of the national Ciudad de Futbol at Las Rojas. They breakfast together there from Monday to Thursday each week during the season, exchanging information, philosophies and tactics, and disperse for the rest of the time, communicating and integrating with clubs.
It goes a little way to explaining the faith that clubs have in the international set-up and why the Spanish FA actually wield some muscle amid the conflicting demands of club v country. A law written into the articles of the association stipulates that if a player does not turn up for an international training camp, he may be banned from any level of football for two years. Good luck with trying that one here.
There is no discernible brand of football running through England's national age-groups, which means that the modern notion of player profiling – knowing exactly how you want your teams to play and finding individuals who can do it – is immaterial. The FA have not possessed a technical director in recent years.
When Roy Hodgson was appointed as Fabio Capello's successor it was because of the perceived need for a manager of English nationality rather than a particular type of football. The FA's appointment of Dan Ashworth as director of elite development is a highly significant and judicious one. Ashworth admits that success is a long-term concept for England.
There is talk in Spain about Lopetegui, who as a goalkeeper played once for Real Madrid and five times for Barcelona, being the long-term successor to the 62-year-old Vincente Del Bosque. In Spain, a low profile seems to be considered a good thing. They're happy to know what they want and quietly keep striving for it.
Wrong time for Compo's criticism
It's understandable that Nick Compton yearns for a place at the centre of this Ashes summer.
At 30, he is not quite in the first flush of sporting youth and a full decade older than his grandfather Denis was when, in 1938, he saved England from probable defeat against Australia in the Second Test at Lord's with an innings of 76 not out, following fast on his century against the same tourists at Trent Bridge.
But Nick's decision, ahead of Wednesday's opening Test, to criticise the selectors for dropping him – "I don't feel I had a fair crack of the whip," he said last week – did not feel terribly wise in light of his indisputably poor form for England against New Zealand.
Compton's grandfather was not always a man of many words, even though he was a pin-up so exalted that he became one of the first sportsmen in need of an agent to deal with all the commercial propositions that came his way.
But he always let his cricket do the talking, and a better response from Nick Compton might have been the one his grand-father would surely have chosen: say little, get your head down and score some runs.
The women's football Euros start in Sweden on Wednesday, offering a taste of how the men's game might have pulled together in everyone's interests if only the FA had not sold out to the Premier League. The Women's Super League, run by the FA, has been suspended during the tournament, amid hopes that England glory abroad might draw in bigger domestic crowds when the League resumes.
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