Under-20 World Cup: England's draw with the war children of Iraq says much about both sides
As poor as Sunday's 2-2 draw was for England, it was a remarkable result against the odds for Iraq
The most startling aspect of England’s draw with Iraq in the Under-20s World Cup group game on Sunday night was that, for all it said about English football, this is a generation of Iraqi players who have developed as players in the most unpromising of circumstances.
The scorer of Iraq's second goal, Ali Adnan, who secured his side a 2-2 draw in injury-time at the end of the game was just nine years old when the invasion of Iraq by American and British forces began in March 2003. Adnan is already a full international, and along with four more of his team-mates from Sunday, played in Iraq's recent World Cup qualifiers.
It is not Iraq's first post-invasion success in international football. Their senior team won the Asian Cup in 2007, one of the great football stories of the previous decade - a remarkable achievement given the state of their country at the time. But the current Under-20s team have known little more than invasion and the ensuing civil war for more than half their lives and have still developed as players capable of holding their own at an international tournament.
This Iraq team reached the final of the Under-19 Asian championship last season - an achievement which earned them qualification for the Under-20s World Cup in Turkey - and, two goals behind England, came strong against Peter Taylor's team in the second half.
As a team are a little lightweight physically, and may struggle against better sides than England but really, given the chaotic state of Iraqi domestic football, and the enforced reorganisation of their domestic league this is a fine team. So too the Iraq senior side who finished in the top ten in Asia in 2014 World Cup qualification, albeit a long way off the qualifying places.
Put simply, these are the war children of Iraq. In spite of all the disadvantages inflicted upon them, they still held their own against an England team that has been developed in the era of Premier League academies and all the so-called benefits that entails. It speaks volumes for Iraq's players. And it says a hell of a lot about the state of English football.
England's truly awful record in the competition continues - Sunday was the 16th anniversary of the last win at an Under-20s World Cup. They have one small mercy. The England cricket team's failure against India on Sunday, and the summer interest in the British Lions and Wimbledon, as well as the Confederations Cup, has drawn attention away from a terrible result.
On Wednesday, Taylor's team play Chile, who beat Egypt in their first game in Group E, a game in which defeat would make qualification for the knockout rounds unlikely. One game into a tournament and already the pressure is on.
Were the Under-20s fail to win a single game - as the Under-21s did at their European Championships in Israel this month - it would add up to a dreadful summer for the Football Association. The quality of the next generation of England players is the biggest problem facing the new FA chairman Greg Dyke and the new FA director of elite development, Dan Ashworth. But, as ever, it is reliant on the talent the clubs produce.
The last time England won a game at the Under-20s World Cup (against Mexico in Malaysia in 1997), the match-winning goalscorer was a 17-year-old Michael Owen. Danny Murphy and Jody Morris were playing in midfield and Jamie Carragher was in defence. Two of those four retired this year. It was a generation ago.
If Dyke is to take a long-term view on forcing the English game to make accommodation for the success of the England teams, he could start by insisting that greater respect is given to the junior age groups. At the last Under-20s World Cup in 2011, it was estimated that England were without 41 eligible players. This time, injury and Under-21 and senior call-ups have denied Taylor around 16 names, the FA estimates.
Dyke will have to appoint a new Under-21s manager and the passing into history of the Stuart Pearce era will mean a fresh start and greater impetus throughout the FA to change the mindset to the junior teams.
Nevertheless, they are so far behind the likes of France and Spain, two of the favourites for the current Under-20s competition, that it is hard to see what effect that Dyke can have in the four years until he will have to step down as FA chairman, when he reaches his 70th birthday. As ever, he will be able to do little more than put the system in place and hope that it bears fruit further down the line.
The deeper problems are more difficult to solve. So few of England's players on Sunday night had Premier League experience. Conor Coady, 20, has played two senior games for Liverpool. Harry Kane, 19, has played just once for Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League. Jon Flanaghan, 20, was given a chance at Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool but played twice last season. Ross Barkley, 19, with 18 senior appearances for Everton is the exception.
As the leading clubs increasingly stock their academies with foreign teenagers - having already done the same with their first team squads - the problem will become more acute. Can the FA do anything about it? Given the way results are going, it has reached the stage where it would be much more dangerous to do nothing.
With youth development in the hands of the clubs, precisely what options are left open to Dyke and his organisation are not clear. One argument is that if the FA was to host an Under-21s European championships it would at least apply more pressure to the clubs to make sure that the England team was strong.
France beat Ghana 3-1 in their first game, with one goal from Yaya Sanogo - likely to be an Arsenal player come next season. That is another English club which is increasingly signing boys in their mid-teens from across Europe rather than persisting with local academy-developed players signed at a much younger ages.
Spain beat the United States 4-1, with two goals apiece from Barcelona's Gerard Deulofeu and Real Madrid's Jese. This month, Spain have fielded separate squads at senior level, in the Confederations Cup; in the Under-21s European championship and the Under-20s World Cup. They won the Under-21s competition and may yet win the other two.
Spain have enough talent to staff all three squads and have players who seem more than willing to give up their summers to play for the national team. England are miles behind that standard.
Undoubtedly, Spain are going through a golden period, but it shows no sign of stopping. England, on the other hand, cannot beat a country that - with the greatest respect - has been one of the most dangerous places on earth for the past decade. As a sign of how desperate the situation has become, it is hard to miss.
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