The Fifa U-17 World Cup provided Indian fans the opportunity to witness the supply line of the game’s elite. It was an enriching experience
This U-17 World Cup has proved to be a real eye-opener. It’s one thing to have a steady diet of European top-flight football on telly, but nothing can match stadium attendance. This World Cup provided the Indian fans with an opportunity to witness the supply-line of the game’s elite. It’s an educating, enriching experience for everyone related to Indian football. The tournament has fascinated us with its high standards. The likes of Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Rhian Brewster, Abel Ruiz, Jann Fiete-Arp, Paulinho, Lincoln and a few others have attested football’s progress even at the development level. Awesome individual skills have combined with superb tactical nous and fantastic game management.
Take the quarter-final between Brazil and Germany at the Salt Lake Stadium. The teams were locked 1-1 at half time, but the European giants had the midfield control. Brazil coach Carlos Amadeu made a tactical switch after the break, changing the formation from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 and sometimes 3-4-3. The kids brilliantly adapted to the switch. If this is the quality at U-17 level, then from our perspective, the Messis and the Ronaldos belong to a different planet. Former England centre-half Sol Campbell has been attending the tournament as a member of the Fifa’s Technical Study Group and even he is impressed with the quality. “The standard and quality have been very high up until now. The players are only 16, 17 years old, which we shouldn’t forget. I saw a lot of good things in the semifinals. The games moved quickly from defence to attack and there was often some high pressing to go with that. There’s a lot of energy on show, teams demand to have the ball and place a lot of importance on possession,” Campbell told Fifa.com.
About tactics, he observed: “Tactically the players are already very advanced in their development, especially the European teams, though I do feel that sometimes they go into one-on-one situations too often. They have no fear, and that’s a good thing. There are fans in the stadiums watching them, but the players aren’t quite in the full media spotlight.” A lot of these players will go on and become big stars in the future. Players from Spain and Germany would be nurtured by the La Liga and the Bundesliga. The England colts, the most impressive of them all, might not be so lucky in terms of game time at senior level.
Take the case of Sancho, who had to leave the England squad midway because his club, Borussia Dortmund, refused to extend his stay in India. Sancho had joined Manchester City in 2015 from the Watford youth academy for an initial fee of £66,000. Two seasons later, on the deadline day (August 31) this year, one of most prodigious English football talent was shipped off to a Bundesliga club for around £8 million. In between, Sancho played for England U-16 and scored seven goals in 11 appearances; and also 14 goals from 17 appearances for the England U-17s. He made an instant impact in this U-17 World Cup with three goals and two assists. Sancho strongly figures in Borussia Dortmund’s scheme of things and it suggests a promising future for the youngster in terms of top-flight game time.
What about Foden though; an uncut diamond in Pep Guardiola’s possession at City? Guardiola has already described the young midfielder as “another level”. Foden showed he belonged during City’s pre-season fixture against Manchester United at Houston. But the reality is that Guardiola bought Bernardo Silva for £44 million during close season and it is delaying Foden’s Premier League debut. Angel Gomes played as a substitute for five minutes in United’s final Premier League fixture against Crystal Palace last term, as Jose Mourinho decided to rest some key first team players ahead of the Europa League final. Gomes hasn’t played for the first team this season yet.
Liverpool fans are now reportedly egging on Jurgen Klopp to hand Rhian Brewster a first team debut, especially after the Young Lions striker’s back-to-back hat-tricks in the ongoing World Cup. Time will tell if the youngster has impressed his club manager enough. And there are others like George McEachran, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Joel Latibeaudiere, Marc Guehi—so many of them—who have wowed the fans with their football. These supremely talented youngsters will return to their respective clubs after the World Cup and will once again start playing for the U-18s, U-23s and reserves, missing out on top-flight game time.
They are not finished articles yet, far from it. But they need to play top-tier football to quicken their development process. They will make mistakes, will learn from them and will get better. Sir Alex Ferguson unearthed the Class of ‘92 at United, adopting this method. He believed in building from within. But with stability at a premium in most Premier League clubs these days, managers are constantly looking over their shoulder. This is why we see silly money being spent on the overseas stars at the expense of the home-growns. England have won the European Under-19 Championship and the U-20 World Cup this year. The U-17s have reached the World Cup final. From that point of view, it’s unfortunate that the lack of serious game time at club level will serve as a hindrance to the colts.
England U-17 coach Steve Cooper agrees. At the same time, he says for players of this age group, playing World Cup matches in front of over 50,000 fans is a more enriching experience that will help them grow into their job. “I think so (about progress getting stalled at club level). I know I have said on a few occasions that this environment …50,000-plus crowd is unheard of in developing tournaments. Maybe, one off game with the host nation being involved, but re-producing crowds like that is a fantastic opportunity for the players to experience what a top game looks like at the top flight, at senior level,” Cooper said. Too much is at stake in modern football and the Premier League clubs probably have become a little too impatient. It’s hurting English football. Three seasons back, only 30-odd English players featured in the Premier League, including four goalkeepers. Compare this with the Bundesliga, where 50% of the players are Germans. Hopefully, the FA will address the issue.