The bigger picture
It is the final matchday in the group phase. In Zilina, Sweden are taking on Slovakia in the knowledge that a draw will suffice for both teams to advance to the semi-finals at the expense of the winner of the other Group A match between Austria and Switzerland. The hosts start brightly, pushing the Swedes on to the back foot and throwing players adventurously into the opponents' penalty area. But, as time peters out after the interval, so does the enthusiasm. The final whistle puts an end to a period of horizontal and backward passing that seals a goalless draw.
In the other group, the fixture between Italy and Russia produces a different result but a similar script. Russian enthusiasm is initially fired by Aleksei Gasilin, who puts them ahead after 12 minutes. But Italy equalise three minutes after the break and the game slides gently downhill until it reaches a plateau of innocuous interchanges between defenders or deliveries to a goalkeeper who stands unchallenged at the edge of the penalty area. As the UEFA.com reporter in Nitra tactfully wrote, "caution was the watchword in the closing stages". Less tactfully, it could be pointed out that the 'highlights' of the second half could feature the 18-pass interchange between the Russian left-back and his goalkeeper shortly after the Italian equaliser. Or the 66 unchallenged passes made by the Italian team during the final four minutes of play, with the Russians waiting passively on their own side of the halfway line.
It so happened that, on that particular day, those were the two matches transmitted live by Eurosport to a pan-European television audience. The previous paragraphs have deliberately painted the picture as black as possible in order to sharpen up the debating points. The first question to arise is to what extent teams should be aware of the bigger picture. Is this an appropriate image of Under-17 football to transmit to the public?
The next question is: if we think something should be done, what can be done? Should the referee be empowered to protect the image of the game by issuing warnings to the captains and/or coaches? Should he be empowered to start issuing yellow cards for 'unsporting behaviour'?
There is another dimension. Slovakia and Sweden kicked-off their game in the knowledge that a draw would leave both teams one point ahead of the winner of the game in Dubnica. Italy and Russia, on the other hand, went into their encounter aware that a particular scoreline would send both teams into the semi-finals. Croatia, if they defeated Ukraine in the other match (which they did) would draw level with their two rivals on five points. But they would be eliminated if Italians and Russians played out any kind of score draw.
A goalless draw would not have been enough. This situation was down to the complexities of the system, based exclusively on head-to-head results, which is stipulated in the tournament regulations to separate teams who finish the group stage level on points. Without spelling out all the details, it meant that any score draw between Italy and Russia made the result of Croatia's match against Ukraine irrelevant.
Is this a correct approach? Was it right to focus exclusively on the matches played by the three teams against each other and eliminate their results against Ukraine from the equation? In an eight-team final tournament, where all the teams can be considered to be of similar quality and where nobody is likely to rack up goals against clearly inferior opposition, is this aspect of the regulations really appropriate? In these cases, would it be preferable to give teams incentives to attack by deciding the group standings simply on overall goal difference?
A free-kick is awarded wide on the right. While the dead-ball specialist makes his way to the scene of the crime and the referee measures the distance from ball to wall, the central defenders make their way upfield. When the kick is delivered into the penalty area, it is deflected off a defender's head for a corner on the far side. Spectators hold their breath while the dead-ball specialist trots the 70-metre diagonal across the pitch.
The ball goes out for a throw-in. The player who got the last touch tosses it towards the closest opponent who chooses to ignore it. The ball rolls infield and is kicked back towards the touchline. Finally, the No2 arrives from his full-back demarcation to make three aborted attempts and then to throw the ball into play.
The examples are linked to the previous talking point in that they raise questions about the relevance of the entertainment factor. As it happened, the final tournament was competing directly for the interest of local sports fans with the ice-hockey world cup finals, in which Slovakia's progress to the quarter-finals was shown on giant screens in the city centre. The question was therefore whether the football was entertaining enough to compete – and whether, with real playing times dipping as low as 42 or 43 minutes, the fans who bought tickets were being offered value for money.
In discussions about the habits displayed by players at U17 level, one of the frequent responses is that the players "are simply copying the seniors". Is this true? In the UEFA Champions League, for example, are ball-out-of-play situations not treated with greater degrees of urgency?
Whatever the answer to that question might be, a further one arises. While coaches may go into final tournaments with a result-orientated approach – or be pressurised into adopting one – who is responsible for injecting the 'entertainment value' aspect into the mindsets of the developing players? Does the coach have the obligation to stress to his players that they are embarking on a career in a 'spectator sport'? If not, who does?
A winter sport?
"I had the misfortune not to have been born in January." As it happened, the sentence had been heard several times by the participants at the UEFA Grassroots Workshop staged in Oslo a few weeks prior to the tournament in Slovakia.
The sentence had been pronounced on stage by players who had successfully negotiated the grassroots-to-elite pathway in spite of birthdates among the back pages of the calendar – which may even have contributed to them being told "you're not going to make it". Many national associations have now put in place schemes aimed at providing more equal opportunities to the end-of-year youngsters and greater awareness of the issue was illustrated by the final tournament in Slovakia. Whereas 41% of the finalists' squads in 2009 had birthdays in either January or February, this figure fell to 29% in the 2013 tournament.
The statistic can be split into good news and bad news in the sense that only 18 players (12.5%) had been born in January 1996, but that 66 had their birthdays between January and March. This means that 46% of the players being offered development opportunities in Slovakia had dates of birth in the first 25% of the calendar. Is this fair? What more can be done to nurture summer and autumn talents?