Sam Wallace: World Cup failure is chance for clubs to start creating adults not just footballers
Talking Football: Müller did not look stressed. Nor Ozil, Lahm, Boateng or Khedira. Yet they all play for a nation of 80 million people with enormous expectations
Monday 05 July 2010
It's amazing what you learn about other countries' national teams from the way they interact with their own press. The Brazilian players are hounded by hyperactive radio reporters to go straight on air via a proffered mobile phone. The French seem to argue a lot, but in a serious, discursive way. The smaller nations, like the Serbs, are just delighted that any of their reporters have come all that way to see them.
And then there are the Germans. On Saturday after another sensational victory, over Argentina in the quarter-finals, they wandered out their dressing room to share their thoughts. As ever, there was the usual pushing and shoving from the television crews to get the prime spot in front of Thomas Müller and Miroslav Klose, but as things calmed down you got the measure of them.
I watched Marko Marin, one of the heroes of last summer's Under-21s European triumph, chatting away to a group of reporters. Lukas Podolski talked for a while, in no rush to go anywhere. Per Mertesacker walked past drinking a bottle of beer to greet a group that he knew. It was – how to put this? – very civilised.
No football team's success has ever been decided on their relationship with the press. That is not the point. The point is that the Germans, for those of us observing from a distance, looked like a balanced, confident bunch. Less isolated and less persecuted. Less likely to leave a stadium wearing a pair of oversized headphones, or drinking a cup of coffee, or eating an apple – all avoidance tactics employed at points by certain England players during their short, unhappy participation in this World Cup finals.
Of course, winning works wonders with a footballer's mood and Germany do have the occasional awkward character. Bastian Schweinsteiger stomped out with the belligerence of those autobahn drivers who flash their lights an inch from your back bumper. It should also be pointed out that players such as Steven Gerrard, John Terry and Frank Lampard, always talk after matches, whatever the result.
Ten years ago, when Germany began their now famous overhaul of their youth development system in response to their failings at Euro 2000, one of the principles that Matthias Sammer, the technical director of the German football federation (DFB), insisted on was that the players should be well-rounded, confident individuals.
Over the next few months we will be hearing a lot about the shortcomings of English football's youth development. No doubt Germany's year 2000 model will be held up as an example to follow with their 121 new talent centres and the investment of up to €500m (£413m). But in the aftermath of another defeat there is a chance to change English footballers for the better.
Those English footballers, at least those who make it to Premier League clubs, are fantastically well-rewarded. It is impossible to justify their salaries to a state-sector teacher or a nurse, just as it is impossible to justify some City bonuses. Footballers earn what the market dictates and carping about their wages is pointless.
What is required is a youth development system that teaches footballers, however wealthy, to act responsibly and behave like well-rounded adults. Their development has to be a more complete package than just simply working on their weaker left foot or building them up in the gym. It might have surprising effects on their performance.
Despite England's 4-1 defeat to Germany, technically there was still little to choose between the two teams: England's Under-17s won the European Championship in May. As a country England is not that far behind. The more you speak to those within Fabio Capello's camp, the more it is evident they are convinced that the sheer scale of the occasion and the pressure – call it "the fear" – contributed to the poor performances.
On Saturday, it did not seem to me like Müller looked stressed. Nor Mesut Ozil, Philipp Lahm, Jerome Boateng or Sami Khedira. Yet they all play for a nation of 80 million people with enormous expectations. This is a country that has already played in seven finals and won the World Cup three times. By comparison, England's record is puny.
Historically, English football clubs have offered a fairly basic apprenticeship to players. Latterly that has changed and apprentices are now are known as academy scholars. Quite rightly, time which could be spent on education is not wasted on menial tasks like boot-scrubbing. Now, as in the past, the most talented players often come from difficult backgrounds and there a limit to what a club, like a school, can do for a child from a severely dysfunctional family.
I have been invited a couple of times to a progressive Premier League club who ask newspaper reporters to speak to their scholars about the media. The boys are like any other teenagers – some a bit cocky, others less so, all of them likeable – but what stops me in my tracks is how young they are and yet how close to being thrown into the world of professional football.
All of them have left school at 16 for a chance at being a footballer – not a move that is going to give them much of an advantage if they have to pursue another career. Most of them will not make it. For those that do there is immediate promotion into a complicated world of instantaneous wealth and adulation mixed with huge pressure and equally instantaneous condemnation.
Judging by the performances of some of England's players at this World Cup, they are not entirely suited to it. A lot of clubs have done their best to prepare them but in the macho, make-or-break culture of football it is not always enough. If this is a year zero in English football, then it should not just be the way young players learn the game that must be changed but the way they handle their lives too.
Talented teens must wait for opportunities
Of those England Under-17s players who won the European Championship in May, how many will get a chance in their clubs' first teams? The likes of the talented Josh McEachran at Chelsea and William Keane at Manchester United cannot be expected to progress to be senior internationals unless they get that first-team experience.
McEachran is behind Frank Lampard, Florent Malouda, Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel and whoever else Chelsea sign this summer for a place in midfield. The team captain, Conor Coady, who is at Liverpool, faces similar problems. Yes, they are still young but it is telling that the only player from the Under-17s side who has had a run in his club's first team is Connor Wickham who, albeit very big for his age, plays for Ipswich, a Championship side.
English game slow to make vital changes
The conflict at the top of English football between the Premier League and the Football Association, as well as the Football League, informs the whole structure. That those three bodies cannot agree was one of the reasons that the most radical report into youth development in football, delivered by Richard Lewis in 2007, has not been adopted.
More than two years ago, I interviewed Brian McClair, the head of Manchester United's academy, and he said that he agreed with all 64 of the proposals suggested by Lewis. Nothing had been done about it then, almost one year on and nothing has been done now. By contrast, look how swiftly Germany responded to the fear that their national game was on the wane, even after a decade in which they had won the 1990 World Cup and Euro 1996.
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