Playing and competing
One of the pre-tournament debating points was whether the expansion to 16 finalists would imply a drop in standards. But, in their talks with UEFA's technical observers in Bulgaria, the coaches gave unanimous endorsement to the enlarged format. "It can only be positive," Netherlands coach Maarten Stekelenburg said. "Before, you used to get five top teams, two surprises and the hosts. Now, nearly all the top countries are present and this makes the final tournament more competitive."
The competitive element was enhanced in Bulgaria by the incentive of places at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, although there were, once again, reservations about safety-first approaches to some of the vital fixtures. This raised the perennial question about whether the Under-17 competition is about youth development or about results. Croatia coach Dario Bašić had clear ideas. "I was not thinking about development," he stated. "My priority was to select the 18 best players for the elite round and, when we qualified for the final tournament, to select the players I thought would give us our best chance of reaching the World Cup."
Belgium coach Bob Browaeys had a similarly pragmatic approach. "Late developers can't be selected at Under-17 level. Otherwise the team can't really be competitive. So early developers or players from the first semester of the year are the ones selected. It means that around 25% of our talented players in this age group are not present, but in Belgium we do not ignore the later developers and some of them will be ready in two years' time to take part in the U19 competition." The Belgium squad contained ten players born in the first three months of 1998 and, of the 288 players originally selected for the final tournament, 102 were born in this quarter. Only seven were born in December.
In the Technical topics part of this report, the coaches underlined that the final tournament in Bulgaria was played at levels of intensity which the players had rarely, if ever, experienced at club level. In national team football, how important is it to educate players to compete and to focus on attaining objectives in terms of playing for results?
Parking the bus
One of the UEFA technical team arrived at base camp after a match, shaking his head. "It wouldn't be fair to say they parked a bus in front of the goal," he said of one of the teams. "Because they used two, in fact." His joke raised a laugh – but it also prompted some serious discussion about football at U17 level and to what extent defensive virtues should be allowed to prevail. Some of the coaches made no secret of their priorities. "The first objective was not to concede a goal and to make it six clean sheets in a row," Bašić told the media after Croatia's 0-0 draw against Spain. "The most important thing today was not conceding a goal," said Greece coach Vassilis Georgopoulos after the game against Scotland. For the sake of argument, this could be interlocked with the fact that no team bounced back to win after conceding first.
In Bulgaria, levels of team organisation and disciplined defending were unanimously praised by the UEFA technical team. On the other hand, the provocative question is, however, whether at this level and at this stage of preparing players for first-team or senior football, there is an unwritten obligation to entertain at a tournament which attracts healthy crowds and where most of the matches are screened to a pan-European television audience.
Groups and individuals
For many of the players, the finals in Bulgaria represented a first opportunity to learn to live together as a squad for a lengthy period of time and to acquire experience with a view to knowing how to cope with the demands of a senior tournament. The coaches, as a consequence, acknowledged the importance of character and attitude among their criteria for player selection. Many of them stressed the importance of talking to each individual and of consulting the player's club coach in order to assess his suitability to be part of the group. Bašić also commented that "in the youth national teams, there is not much time to teach them things, but there is enough time to build a good atmosphere and nice, positive relationships between the players and the staff".
"To be selected, a player needs to be accepted by the group and know how to behave as a member of that group," said one coach. "If the character assessment of the boy is not positive he will not be selected," said another. In Belgium, a winning mentality and emotional stability are among the elements included in pre-selection screening. In France, mindset and team spirit are also rated important factors. Spain's age-limit teams, so successful over the years, have always stressed the importance of ability to manage emotional states: to avoid extreme reactions of euphoria or despondence.
With a view to preparing players for an international career which might entail periods of up to 50 or 60 days of cohabitation, nobody would argue with those principles.
But the possible debating points emerge from some of the comments made during the tournament. There was widespread praise for team ethics, collective virtues and the way that the 'star performers' were willing to integrate fully into the teams' defensive strategies. At the same time, there were remarks such as "they depended on teamwork with players who are obviously receiving a very good football education and play in a highly disciplined fashion. The team was built on hardworking players who ticked a lot of boxes – but there were no individuals who could change the result". Hmmm…
The comment is a challenge to reflect – and maybe to question some of the principles mentioned earlier. Is it totally positive to focus exclusively on teenagers who already possess well-balanced, rounded personalities? Is there a risk of letting potential talent slip through our fingers? Is there a risk of developing teams with a lot of positive features but a negative balance in terms of personality?
Talking of risk, how positive is it to lead players in youth development teams along the risk-management road? What is the correct interpretation of a remark such as "the team focused on playing very safe passes without any risk"? Is that a positive feature? Or a negative one?
In Bulgaria, the technical team raised the question whether correct passing and discipline will ultimately produce the right results. "Playing without risk and without passion is very safe, but, for me, something is missing," one of the technical observers argued. "In my opinion, one of the reasons why France won this tournament is that, apart from having some very talented individuals, they were prepared to take risks."
While acknowledging the importance of educating young players to fully integrate in the group to acquire competitive edge and to develop a team ethic and winning mentality, what more can be done to encourage creativity within the framework of collective virtues?