Sam Wallace: England's underachieving youngsters should be given a real chance to compete
Talking Football: It cannot be a coincidence that the nations who produce some of the best senior teams also fare well at the Under-20s World Cup
Monday 11 October 2010
The Under-20s World Cup finals was where Diego Maradona, Luis Figo, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Robert Prosinecki, Kaka, Michael Essien, Carlos Tevez, Cesc Fabregas, Rafael van der Vaart, Arjen Robben, Maicon, Sergio Aguero, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez got their first taste of an international football tournament. Not a bad list of players. Now for the embarrassing bit.
No England team at an Under-20s World Cup finals have won a game since 1993. There have been eight tournaments since then and England have qualified for three. In nine games they have scored just one goal and that was against Uzbekistan.
It will not surprise you to learn that England never send their best Under-20s team to the tournament and that the reasons for that are rooted in some age-old conflicts of interest within the English game. The next Under-20 World Cup is in July in Colombia and this time it would be nice to think that the England team will not be the first on a plane home.
The Under-20s World Cup offers serious football nations the stage to develop their elite young players within the auspices of an international football tournament. It does not guarantee that those players will go on to win the real World Cup but it cannot hurt their chances. Fabregas, for instance, often cites his part in the 2005 tournament as a formative experience.
Argentina are devotees of the tournament, and have won three of the last six, but perhaps more importantly they have used the Under-20s to bring on Messi, Tevez, Aguero, Fernando Gago, Angel Di Maria, Esteban Cambiasso, Javier Mascherano, Pablo Zabaleta, Javier Saviola, Maxi Rodriguez and Gabriel Milito.
Given England's record of underachievement in international football, is it really wise to continue ignoring a tournament that is taken so seriously by the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Spain? Are they not the nations whose success in developing young players we aspire to replicate?
As with so much that is wrong with English football, the neglect of the Under-20s World Cup comes down to a basic conflict between the clubs and the Football Association. The last tournament, in Egypt in 2009, was held in October. The team the FA sent was not the best England could muster. It was the best the clubs made available.
With respect to the players who lost to Uruguay and Ghana and drew 1-1 with Uzbekistan, they were not the elite. The names on the squad list told their own story. Febian Brandy, for instance, has since been released by Manchester United and is a free agent. Michael Woods at Chelsea is, with the best will in the world, not one of those the club have earmarked for greatness.
The problem lies with the timing of the tournament, which has clashed in the past with the English league season. Even though the players the FA's coaches would like to pick for the Under-20 squad are not directly involved with first-team football, English clubs are still reluctant to release them from pre-season or even their own academy and reserve programmes. It is not an attitude that helps the national team.
Next year's competition in Colombia starts on 29 July and overlaps with the first week of the season in August. The FA has already written to its top clubs asking them to consider releasing players from pre-season.
This is not the same as asking Everton to release Tim Cahill to play in the Asian Cup in the middle of the Premier League season. The FA is not asking clubs to release senior first-team players during the league season. It is not even asking for the likes of Jack Wilshere and Josh McEachran, who are eligible to play Under-20s football but are already in their club's first team. It is asking for the best of the rest.
It would be within the FA's rights to insist on taking the likes of Wilshere and McEachran who, under the Fifa international release rules would have to go. In Argentina, Brazil and Spain there is no argument: the best players are called up whatever their club commitments. The English FA has no desire to be so antagonistic but it could do with a bit more cooperation.
It cannot be a coincidence that the nations who traditionally produce some of the best teams in the senior tournament also fare well at the Under-20s World Cup. Ghana won it last year. Come June this year, four of the players in that Under-20s squad were picked for the Ghana World Cup squad that made it to the quarter-finals in South Africa.
Since 1999 in Nigeria, when Ashley Cole, Peter Crouch and Andy Johnson played in an England team that lost all three games without scoring a goal, only James Milner (who played in 2003) has graduated from the Under-20s to the senior team.
The biggest clubs in the Premier League seem strangely reluctant to release any player who might even be remotely connected to their first team. It is a short-term gain. On the slim chance a young player on the fringes of the first-team squad might be needed to sit on the bench during the short time the Under-20s tournament is on, they deprive him of an experience that would be of huge benefit.
The successful international nations venerate the youth tournaments. In England the fixation is on the senior team and when they fail at a World Cup finals we cast around for the magic solution to solve all our problems. International football, like club football, requires investment and time.
Winning six Under-20s World Cups since 1977 has not guaranteed Argentina success at the senior level, although they have won the 1978 and 1986 World Cups during that period. Brazil have won four Under-20s World Cups since 1977 and also the 1994 and 2002 World Cups in the same timeframe. Does anyone else see a pattern emerging?
Administration's no deal-breaker for committed
If new England Sports Ventures value Liverpool as much as we are told they do (and we have been told that, ad nauseam, over the last six days) then why would a nine-point deduction for administration put them off?
"NESV wants to create a long-term financially solid foundation for Liverpool FC and is dedicated to ensuring that the club has the resources to build for the future," their statement on Wednesday said. Someone tell John W Henry to put down the silly cigar and get a grip. Because if a nine-point deduction makes him run for the hills what does that say about his "long-term" commitment?
England novelty wearing thin for nearly-man Cahill
The first time Gary Cahill was called up to the England squad as a late replacement for an injured player he clearly treated it as a novelty. "I got a phone call from the FA, got a few tools together – the boots and the shin pads – and now I am really looking forward to the opportunity," he said in June last year.
By the time he got the shout on Friday to replace Phil Jagielka the excitement must have worn off. Squads Cahill has been picked for: two. Squads he has been belatedly called up for: four. Total minutes on pitch for England: 34. Caps: one. He must shudder every time his phone rings in an international week.
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