A stat was thrown at Brazil’s U-17 World Cup team coach quite early at the morning meeting with the media — that the country has not won the tournament since 2003. You’d expect Carlos Amadeu to be under some pressure from the public back home, considering that the South American nation measures success by World Cup titles.
But instead, the coach revealed that the goal, at the upcoming edition in India, was not obsessively centred around winning the trophy. “An achievement for us will be if they (players) get into a professional team in the future,” he calmly said. “But if we can do that by winning a trophy along the way, that’ll be a positive for us too.”
Over the last year, the build-up to the biennial youth event has seen a tidal wave of phrases flooding the Indian football vocabulary: grassroots programs and youth development. But hosting the Under-17 World Cup, does not guarantee transformation of the sport in the country.
For the heavyweights of the sport though, the tournament, at the end of the day, is a youth level competition for players to showcase their talent. “We are working with young players and our aim is to develop them. Earlier players like Pele and Garrincha would go out in their 20s. Now clubs are after them when they are 15,” Amadeu adds.
The history of the event shows that success at the tournament does not determine how a player will turn out.
A certain Alessandro Del Piero skippered the Italians in the 1991 edition, while Francesco Totti captained the class of ‘93, with Gianluigi Buffon playing second fiddle. Both campaigns saw the Italians crash out in the group stages. Yet over a decade later, the trio combined to win the senior World Cup in 2006 — football’s ultimate prize. And among the eight teams to have won the senior title, only Brazil (thrice) and France (once) have won it at the U-17 level.
For all the praise that comes at competing — in India’s case, qualifying (as hosts) — at the international event, the tournament serves as a transition for players into the professional stream. “Infrastructure and coaching (for the World Cup) can help create an ecosystem that can be conducive to the transition between youth and senior teams,” former Spanish striker Fernando Morientes told FIFA.
Like Del Piero, Totti and Buffon, it served well for 2014 World Cup winner Toni Kroos as well, who won the Golden Ball at the youth tournament when he led the German team to a bronze-medal finish in 2007. “Your every move is observed, and it provides you with the motivation to reach the next level,” Kroos told FIFA. “It was one of the most important events in my development.”
At the same time, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi never played the U-17 World Cup. Still coaches dub the transition of a player to the senior level an ‘achievement’ despite success at a youth level. African giants Nigeria for example, have won the U-17 title a record five times, but have not gone beyond the Round of 16 at the senior edition.
Similarly, Daniel Addo, the Golden Ball winner at the 1993 youth tournament for finalists Ghana, remained a journeyman, having dabbled in lower German leagues with stints in Austria, Lebanon, Macedonia before finally returning to his home country.
It’s a warning the Indian colts’ former coach Nicolai Adam had reiterated to the squad during his spell with the team. “I always
reminded them that even if they play the greatest u-17 World Cup and all of India wants to touch their shoulders and say that they did a beautiful job, it doesn’t guarantee them a successful career as a professional footballer,” Adam had told The Indian Express during the U-16 AFC Cup last year.
The Indian example
India is replete with examples of prodigies in juniors never quite making the cut in seniors — either struggling in the transition or giving off a misplaced sense of high quality owing to age fraud.
The end of teens is also considered a make-or-break period by parents, driven solely by success in juniors in terms of titles and trophies, even when it has been infinitely evident that physically Indians mature later and sport is only in freak cases about the next teen sensation.
While the top footballing nations (Germany and Italy have never won u-17s) have displayed patience, and worked meticulously on the process — aware that these are uncut diamonds — Indian sport will always see dropouts, should the teenage years not yield the desired success.
Meanwhile, Amadeu has travelled to India with the 21 best players he could find in the age group. Vinicius Junior tops the list, as Real Madrid’s 46 million Euro acquisition is the most expensive teenager to feature in the upcoming competition.
Still the coach is wary of shortcomings in the scouting system. “Sometimes we are surprised to see a player who never appeared in the youth age, but is doing well at the senior level. That’s something we want to improve, because it’s not good for us to be ‘surprised’,” he says.
For now, the coach can be satisfied in the knowledge that each member of his squad is tied up with a top-flight Brazilian club. Even the French, Turks and English have their teenagers coming from clubs in their respective countries.
Manchester United, for one, cannot wait for their forward Angel Gomes to return from England duty once the World Cup concludes. Says the club academy coach Kieran McKenna to MUTV: “He’ll be back in with us to make an impression at this club as that’s the most important thing in his development.”
Once he returns from the World Cup, the transition to the senior level will be complete.
Under-17 world cup as a yardstick
Stars who didn’t win
1989: Luis Figo (Portugal)
1987: Emmanuel Petit (France)
1991: Alessandro Del Piero (Italy)
1993: Hidetoshi Nakata (Japan), Francesco Totti (Italy), Gianluigi Buffon (Italy)
1995: Esteban Cambiasso (Argentina), Pablo Aimar (Argentina), Julio Cesar (Brazil)
1997: Iker Casillas (Spain), Xavi Hernandez (Spain)
1999: Landon Donavan (USA)
2001: Andres Iniesta (Spain), Fernando Torres (Spain), Carlos Tevez (Argentina), Javier Mascherano (Argentina)
2003: John Obi Mikel (Nigeria), Cesc Fabregas (Spain), David Silva (Spain)
2007: Danny Welbeck (England), David de Gea (Spain), Eden Hazard (Belgium), Toni Kroos (Germany), James Rodriguez (Colombia)
2009: Neymar (Brazil), Philippe Coutinho (Brazil), Mario Goetze (Germany), Isco (Spain)
2011: Raheem Sterling (England)
Stars who won
Stars who won 1991: Samuel Kuffour (Ghana)1993: Nwankwo Kanu (Nigeria)1997: Ronaldinho (Brazil)2005: Carlos Vela (Mexico)
Stars who never played: Zinedine Zidane (France), Thierry Henry (France), Ronaldo (Brazil), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Lionel Messi (Argentina), Philipp Lahm (Germany), Thomas Muller (Germany), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany)
Winners who didn’t make it big
1991: Nii Lamptey (Ghana)
1997: Ferrugem (Brazil)
2001: Florent Sinama Pongolle (France)
2003: Ederson (Brazil)
2007: Macauley Chrisantus (Nigeria)