Under-20s World Cup: Despite Peter Taylor's efforts, there were no positives

 

As befits the loyal Football Association man, Peter Taylor tried – as the modern football vernacular would have it – “to take the positives” after his England team’s defeat to Egypt in the Under-20s World Cup on Saturday night.

It was a defeat that left them bottom of group E and out the competition, trailing in fourth behind Iraq, Chile and the Egyptians. It extended England’s run without a win in the competition to 15 games dating back to 1997. It left the Under-21s and Under-20s with a combined record in tournament football this summer of played 6; won 0, drawn 2, lost 4.

To summarise: there were no positives. “The experience of playing in the Under-20s World Cup is fantastic for everybody,” Taylor said. Except it has been very far from that for the five out of eight Under-20s World Cup finals for which the country has qualified since their last win at the tournament 16 years ago.

This has been the summer of hell for the Football Association’s junior teams. Beaten in all three group games in the European Under-21s championships under Stuart Pearce and now this latest humiliation for Taylor’s squad in Turkey. The latter, necessarily a team thrown together from the remnants of last season’s Under-19s squad, has actually played better than the Under-21s, but even so.

The story of the first round has been the brilliant Iraqis, a team of players who grew up in the country’s violent last decade who won their group. England’s best half of the competition was the first half against Iraq whom they led 2-0 with 15 minutes remaining before being pegged back to 2-2. But when one compares the two countries’ football infrastructure, England’s performance has been an indictment of the state of English football.

The most talented player in the England team has been Ross Barkley, the Everton 19-year-old who tends to blow hot and cold. Erik Dier, the Sporting Lisbon academy boy who is the grandson of the late Football Association secretary Ted Croker, has played well. Harry Kane and Alex Pritchard of Spurs have had moments of promise, although the former should have scored against Egypt.

You can make excuses that with the Under-21s playing in the same summer, England were stretched when it came to players. But then look at Spain, who have sailed through three victories in the Under-20s group stages including one over France, who are the competition’s second favourites. The Spanish won the Under-21s European championship, the seniors have played in the Confederations Cup and they still have the resources for an outstanding Under-20s squad.

Spain, France, Croatia, Greece, Portugal and Turkey are the European sides in the second round, which starts on Tuesday. Admittedly, the likes of Brazil and Argentina have not made it to the competition although between them those two countries have won the Under-20s World Cup six times since England last won a match at the tournament.

Germany, Italy and the Netherlands were also missing from the competition but then these are not countries who already have seen fundamental problems in producing elite young players. Asked afterwards if he regretted not bringing more strikers – he only has three in his squad – Taylor replied with admirable honesty that “there were no other forwards available”.

As usual, the next two months in English football will be a frenzy of big transfers and new names coming into the Premier League as the transfer market heats up. But as ever, the problem for the junior national teams is that the young English players – however well coached they may be in the new generation of academies – are just not being given opportunities in many clubs’ first teams.

Some exceptional players will always force their way into top teams but, watching the Under-20s, one is reminded that talent comes in many different forms and often it needs nurturing and persistence for it to flourish. The Iraqi domestic league has been postponed and regionalised in the chaos of the last ten years and yet the country has still produced a coherent, accomplished, committed group of players.

England on the other hand, are a squad pulled together from what the FA have been allowed by club sides to recruit. The dismal Under-20s record is one for which the whole of English football should carry the can, but it is hard to imagine that those who run the biggest clubs will care at all.  

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