There has been a lot of talking and worrying about the England national team in the last week and everyone has a million different reasons why things don't look so promising. Some people are even worrying about the young players watching TV and playing computer games instead. Well, I can tell you that young people watch television in Spain and Germany, too!
Finding top young players in England is not as difficult as everyone seems to think. They are passionate, strong and committed in a way that young players in many other countries are not. I see talent, quality and technique. A lot of young English players are better than foreign players. The challenge for England – who have not been winning things for a long time – is to find a way to develop that talent. That is what people should be worrying about.
England is not the first country to worry about its young players getting first-team football. It was the same in Spain when I was coming through as a young player for Real Madrid. I was playing for the third team and there was a rule that you had to have a minimum of four under-20s in your squad and two starting the game who had to play for at least 20 minutes. A lot of the teams had their older star players warming up from the start and after precisely 20 minutes they would come on to replace the young ones. My point is that rules and new quotas won't solve the problem. We need to develop players who are good enough to play. Whoever those players might be – Raul, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney – they will always get their chance if they are good enough.
The FA are trying to change the system. They are doing good work, sending people around the world to learn new ideas. But one idea which helps the Spanish federation very much is the series of competitions it holds for regional youth teams – something we never see in England. When I was in the Real academy I would go up to play for the Madrid county against maybe Catalunia, Galicia or Andalucia and when the semi-finals and finals took place, the coach of the Spanish Under-16s team would be watching. The coaches of the regional teams would meet with the national coaches too – having forums, conversations, sharing ideas about the best way to play. I don't say this is the solution for England. I just say that this is one way, one idea.
The academy of Real had an incredible way of finding talent, too. The competitions we called the torneo social – "social tournament", you would say – allowed the club to watch maybe 2,000 players in one year. If you were good enough in those trial games you would be put into a team that was playing the next Saturday, each named after a Real player. Mine was called "Grosso" after Ramon Grosso, I remember. Real watched player after player after player. Nobody worried about foreign players coming in because everybody just wanted the best. The game now is global, so you can't say "no" to foreign players. You can't stop them. That's life now.
The foreign players don't have to be a problem if you are developing your players, as England can if they improve the coaching and develop a common methodology like Germany and Spain. It will take time. England don't have the same coaching culture so first it will be necessary to coach the coaches so that they can offer intelligent analysis and technical aspects to the players.
It is a mistake to think only about Barcelona when it comes to deciding what the common methodology should be. Under Johan Cruyff, Barcelona once played 3-4-3 in all their teams and then they developed to 4-3-3, but when Vincente del Bosque was technical director of the academy at Real he did not have only one system. As a coach at Real I was using zonal marking and pressing up the pitch but others were different. Our one common idea at Real was playing with the ball on the floor. We said: 'We play football because we are Real Madrid.'
By continuing the work they have started, England are as capable as any nation to develop a common mentality and culture, developing technical skills and creating a confidence in the philosophy among the players. I know the debate that the FA chairman has started included a target of winning the 2022 World Cup. But the problem with setting a goal is that you don't know what the other teams will be like in 2022. You can't control them. And I also think your target must be about more than winning the World Cup. Yes, if you have a good XI – three or four great players – you can win, maybe. But a lot of teams can win their league in one year because they have a good group of players and no injuries and then the next year they might finish 10th. You have to be consistent, getting closer and closer until you have a squad who can compete, year after year. It will take time but England can get there. I have seen enough of your country to say with confidence that there does not need to be so much pessimism.
Should we scrap the away goal rule?
There was an interesting few days for me at the Uefa headquarters in Nyon, since I last wrote, at the elite club coaches forum, where there were many ideas being talked about. There was statistical data to analyse what brings success in the Champions League, in which my Napoli team receive Borussia Dortmund next week. There has been a rise in goals scored from cutbacks from the goal line which shows the value of wide players. The percentage of teams who win ties after scoring first is very high, so teams are good in possession when they go ahead. And there has been a rise in goals scored in Europe. Maybe the defenders are earning less money! But the debate included the idea of changing the away goals rule for European games – perhaps to make it apply only if a tie is level after normal time of the two legs.
The argument is that there is no need for it, because teams are not so negative away. But we would need to think very hard before making that change. Changing the away goals rule would alter the whole complexion of the Champions League. New rules are good only if – like three points for a win all those years ago – they improve the game.
Life as a film star...
You have asked me how my life as a film star has been going! When I wrote my last column, I was about to be filmed in the Christmas comedy which my Napoli players are appearing in. My aim was to keep a low profile and I did that, thanks to Pepe Reina, who I can always rely on when I'm in a tight spot! When the cameras were rolling, I passed the ball to Pepe who said some words. And that was that! I think that's the start and finish of my film career!Reuse content