The journey from boys to men

How youth competitions, at both club and national-team levels, can make a real difference to a player's chances of a successful career in the game.

Gerard Piqué, with Mario Suarez, basks in the glory of winning the European Under-19 title in 2006, little knowing that four years later he would be clutching the World Cup.
Gerard Piqué, with Mario Suarez, basks in the glory of winning the European Under-19 title in 2006, little knowing that four years later he would be clutching the World Cup. ©Getty Images

Skill and maturity grow hand in hand as players go up through the ranks of youth football. But the key is in the competition.

To gauge the value of youth tournament football, it is worth opening the pages of Andrés Iniesta's book The Artist: Being Iniesta. Inside is a fascinating insight from Iniesta's former Spain team-mate Fernando Torres into the precious learning curve that a youth competition can provide. In this case, the U-17 World Cup in Trinidad and Tobago in 2001. Iniesta and Torres were then 17 years old and key players in a Spain team eliminated in the first round after defeat by Burkina Faso. On the plane home, Torres and Iniesta sat writing a letter about the difficulties encountered. "The awful training facilities, the completely unacceptable standard of hotels, the debatable quality of the food, the travelling ..." Torres remembered. 

Fernando Torres (left) and Andrés Iniesta starred at UEFA EURO 2008
Fernando Torres (left) and Andrés Iniesta starred at UEFA EURO 2008©Getty Images

"That tournament helped both Andrés and me grow up fast, because it showed us the flipside of this game, the pain of defeat," added the Atlético icon. "We were the main players in that squad and so we were singled out for blame when it all went wrong." The lesson served both men well. 

As Torres explained, he wrote a message on a shirt that he gave to Iniesta on their homeward journey from the Caribbean. It read: "One day, you and I will win the World Cup together." The striker's prescience was impressive. Iniesta, as we now know, would score Spain's winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final against the Netherlands, two years after Torres himself had decided the destiny of the EURO 2008 final against Germany.

This just shows that there can be something significant to learn in defeat as well as victory. And the intensity of the occasion can give the lesson extra force.

Spain's regular participation in the final stage of youth competitions meant their footballers had plenty of learning opportunities before that unique winning sequence, at senior level, of two European titles and one world crown between 2008 and 2012.

Germany keeper Manuel Neuer went from being a European Under-21 Championship winner in Sweden in 2009 to a World Cup winner in Brazil in 2014
Germany keeper Manuel Neuer went from being a European Under-21 Championship winner in Sweden in 2009 to a World Cup winner in Brazil in 2014©Getty Images

The Spanish team continue to arrive at the major tournaments having garnered the most know-how as youth footballers – by EURO 2016, for instance, they had accumulated 125 games combined in Under-17, Under-19 and Under-21 finals. Second on the list, meanwhile, were Germany with 114 matches between them. Back in 2009, they served early notice of the World Cup-winning potential that was realised in 2014 when Manuel Neuer, Jérôme Boateng, Mats Hummels, Benedikt Höwedes and Mesut Özil helped capture the European Under-21 title in Sweden. In that same summer of 2009, Mario Götze, scorer of their 2014 World Cup final-winning goal, became a European Under-17 champion. 

Ginés Meléndez Sotos, technical director of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, speaks of the "positive baggage" that a player collects through such participations at youth level. He was coach of the Spain team, including Juan Mata and Gerard Piqué, that won the European Under-19 Championship in 2006.

"The players who pass through these competitions act differently when they're older and have greater potential than those who've not had the same experience," he says.

Piqué, he notes, was "always a leader, with a winning mentality" but he still gained from his experiences with Spain's junior sides. And so did his team-mates.

"Players who learn to compete as Under-17s and Under-19s have an advantage when they go on to the senior national team. A player develops when he's competing, and if he doesn't compete at the highest level he doesn't develop properly. If you do things that are too easy, you hardly get better at all. Competition is everything. It's what makes the biggest mark. It's fundamental. Without competition they can't improve."

There are "completely different" challenges at each age level, adds Meléndez, who notes how Under-17 players, for instance, face the test of handling a spell of time in a foreign country. "Three weeks is a long time not to have some drop in morale with the younger age groups, especially when results aren't good."

A good tradition
These opportunities are nothing new for the best teenagers in European football. The first UEFA Youth Tournament was played in 1957, taking over from the FIFA Youth Tournament that had been introduced nine years earlier. In 1981, this became the European Under-18 Championship, then a year later UEFA created its sister competition for the Under-16s. In 2001 the two competitions were relaunched as Under-19 and Under-17 tournaments respectively. While they had a long-established tradition of a final round involving 16 teams, it was not until 2000 that a group-stage format was introduced to the Under-21 final round, then featuring eight teams.

Iceland's Birkir Bjarnason
Iceland's Birkir Bjarnason©Getty Images

The Under-21 competition certainly provided crucial experience for the Iceland players who went on to stun England, and the watching continent, at EURO 2016. The team that overcame England en route to the quarter-finals in France included five players – Birkir Bjarnason, Johann Gudmundsson, Aron Gunnarsson, Kolbeinn Sigthórsson and Gylfi Sigurdsson – who had earlier caused a ripple or two by beating Germany 4-1 on their way to their first Under-21 finals in 2011. Once there, they eliminated the hosts, Denmark. Indeed it was Sigthórsson, scorer of the opening goal in the 3-1 defeat of the Danes, who would hit the winner against England in Nice five years later. 

John Peacock watched the recent European Under-17 Championship in England in his role as a UEFA technical observer. Formerly coach of the England side that won the event in 2014, he believes every opponent now offers different hurdles to overcome.

"Whatever country you play nowadays, in Europe or the world, they're very difficult to beat," he argues. "If you're England playing one of the smaller nations, invariably they will defend deep and defend in numbers around the box, and that's a different aspect from what they are used to back in England, where they play pretty much toe to toe, week in week out."

Facing different tactical questions is just one of the challenges, as Peacock adds. "When you're playing for your country and you're abroad, with different facilities and a different culture, it's a massive learning curve. When they get into senior football these are things they're going to have to contend with.

"You want a little bit of pressure to try and do well, but the skill of the head coach now is to make sure the environment isn't so pressurised that players don't perform. It's about getting the right balance really," Peacock continues.

"The ones that reach the very top are the ones that have this drive and can handle pressure. Sometimes, for the ones that can't handle it, it's going to be difficult to sustain the level of career at the top level that they'd want. You do find out a lot more about the player, and a lot more about the team, trying to compete in this environment.

"The acid test is you are trying to get to a World Cup and these experiences that the players have gained can hopefully stand them in good stead at a senior level."

Wayne Rooney celebrates an England U17 success in 2002
Wayne Rooney celebrates an England U17 success in 2002©

Wayne Rooney, England's record goalscorer, was also involved in this year's European Under-17 Championship as tournament ambassador. In what now feels like a different age, the then 16-year-old Rooney earned the golden ball for his five-goal feat at the 2002 finals in Denmark. Speaking ahead of the latest tournament, Rooney dwelled on the potential these competitions hold as a launch pad for a young footballer's career. 

Glimpse of the future
"I got used to scoring goals for my country, which at any level is a great moment," said Rooney, who made his first-team debut at Everton within three months of his Under-17 feats. "I think it's brilliant to see what level you are, but also to try and get into the rhythm of playing tournament football.

"There are things you can show in these games that can make your club manager stand up and think, 'Well he's got a chance, I'm going to take a chance on him, give him a go'. These tournaments can catapult players to the next level, into the first teams in whatever clubs they're at," he added.

One up-and-coming England midfielder, Lewis Cook, highlighted his own promise as part of John Peacock's triumphant side at the 2014 finals in Malta. He went on to captain England to victory at last year's U-20 World Cup and became a Premier League regular with Bournemouth in 2017/18, to earn a place in Gareth Southgate's standby squad for the World Cup finals.

Peacock remembers the small but significant steps the then Leeds United player took with England's Under-17s. "I saw a definite improvement in that 2013/14 season. I saw a very committed player with lots of ability but who just needed to fine-tune parts of his game. He was very competitive, but on the international stage you need to be a little bit more careful about when you can produce that tackle. He matured as the season went on and he did outstandingly well in the finals in Malta."

Club competition
This decade has brought further opportunities for young players at the continent's leading clubs and then in the UEFA Youth League, which was launched in 2013/14.

The Youth League enables youngsters to get accustomed to the routine of midweek international club football – travelling and testing themselves against their counterparts from other countries – and, in theory, lessens the impact when they step into the senior European game.

Matthijs de Ligt (left) playing for the Netherlands in an U15 friendly against Germany
Matthijs de Ligt (left) playing for the Netherlands in an U15 friendly against Germany©Getty Images

In all, 135 players have stepped up from the UEFA Youth League to the UEFA Champions League. The equivalent figure for the UEFA Europa League is 170. One particularly noteworthy graduate from the Europa League is teenage defender Matthijs de Ligt, who played for Ajax in the Youth League in February 2017 and three months later produced a display of extraordinary composure for the Amsterdammers in the Europa League final against Manchester United.  

Jason Wilcox, academy manager at Manchester City, is appreciative of possibilities that the UEFA Youth League provides for his young prospects to sample different styles as well as environments.

Speaking in Nyon ahead of City's semi-final defeat against eventual Youth League champions Barcelona in April, he said: "One thing we always say is that our development programme is not all about 'win at all costs' at academy level, but there are going to be times when we have to put the boys under a little bit more pressure to go and win.

"There are certain tournaments abroad where we make a real effort to win, and I think that's important. But we try and build the boys' character so that this game is not a development game, this is about learning how to win big football matches, and the pressure that involves. If the boys can't handle the pressure of playing in a [UEFA Youth League] semi-final, they've got no chance of handling the pressure in a senior Champions League final, which is what the ultimate aim is."

And, as Andrés Iniesta and Fernando Torres can vouch, reaching that ultimate goal can mean some harsh lessons along the way. 

This abridged article originally appeared in UEFA Direct 179