A world of difference
No France. No Germany. The two countries which had amassed seven of the 12 tournaments contested under the Under-19 banner were conspicuous by their absence from the event in Norway. They, alongside England and Finland, had occupied the top four places at the 2013 final tournament that had earned them a journey to Canada to represent Europe at the FIFA Women's U-20 World Cup, which kicked off barely nine days after the ball had stopped rolling in the Oslo region.
The first talking point might be a whispered query as to whether failure to qualify for the final tournament of the European competition could have been considered a blessing in disguise for the Finns, the French and the Germans. Reaching the finals of both competitions certainly posed challenges to the English.
Seventeen of the 18 players who'd taken silver medals home from the 2013 UEFA tournament in Wales were in England's World Cup squad. No fewer than 11 players were eligible to play in Norway – and all 11 had taken part in England's European qualifying campaign. The net result was that the team which represented England in Norway was not the team which had won a place in the top eight.
There were also repercussions at coaching level, with staffing arrangements stretched to the limit. With Mo Marley's priorities clearly to prepare for the World Cup, she was unable to make more than a token appearance in Norway, leaving the coaching role to Brent Hills, the man responsible for coordinating and managing all the national team squads within the FA from the U20s downwards.
In typical fashion, Hills gave the situation the most positive spin imaginable. "It's a fantastic opportunity for other girls," he maintained. "Seventeen of them could play in the 2015 competition and four of them the year after." After the 'alternative' England team had accumulated three defeats and one goal in the three group games, he added: "The girls showed that they could play at this level but we just didn't have the experience and guile."
The lack of experience in the England team can be numerically expressed by the table of birthdates which reveals that only 37% of the players in Norway were born in 1995 and that only 15 were born at the top end of the age bracket – between January and March of that year.
For the sake of creating a talking point, the situation could be stretched to its limit. With Finland drawn into the same elite round group as England, both could not have qualified. But what if, according to the form book, Germany and the defending champions, France, had qualified instead of Belgium and Sweden? To what extent would the final tournament have been adulterated? To what extent is it correct to endorse the Hills view that the situation offers opportunities to other players? Or does the clash of dates deprive players of an international tournament, in that they can play only one instead of two? Is the either/or situation really necessary?
The questions highlight the importance of the talks which, while the tournament was being played in Norway, were going on at FIFA level with a view to rationalising the international calendar. Are there also grounds for considering an alignment of the UEFA and FIFA age limits? Would it help to eliminate the current U19/U20 discrepancy?
Is the woman's game a man's world?
All eight of the finalists' coaches were men. There was an anecdotal element to the statistic in that England's Mo Marley would have provided an exception to the rule but for the situation mentioned above. In Norway, backroom staff were predominantly male – a graphic illustration being provided by a 'squad photo' of Spain's team-behind-the-team published on UEFA's website. It features 15 people – all of them men. But, reverting to a purely coaching perspective, the debating point boils down to a single word: why?
The male domination in Norway provided an extension to the trend noted at UEFA Women's EURO 2013, at which nine of the 12 coaches were men. One of the exceptions was England's Hope Powell, who was in Norway as a member of the UEFA technical team. "If you're looking to spark off discussion," she commented, "I think you'd have to ask whether the growing popularity of women's football is attracting a greater number of male coaches because there is greater kudos attached to working with the women's teams these days. Then you could begin to debate why the decision-makers within the national associations prefer to appoint male coaches. And, carrying on from that, you could discuss whether it's always appropriate to select men who have limited or no experience in women's football. One theory that I'd not really like to go along with is that there aren't enough qualified female coaches. I think the talking point is to ask why they are not being appointed."
Examining the evidence
Norway coach Jarl Torske commented: "
We were fortunate that we had no exams to contend with and our summer league was also a plus." But for the majority of coaches who took teams to Norway, examinations raised player selection issues and had significant repercussions on preparation work.
One coach had been obliged to omit two players from his squad because of incompatibilities with examination dates. On the other hand, the flexible exam schedules at the Scandinavian sports schools offered benefits. The three contestants from the British Isles had to contend with rigidly fixed examination dates. In the Low Countries and Spain, preparations had been conditioned by exam periods which extended three weeks or more into the month of June.
There were also substantial differences between the countries with summer leagues and those where championships are played through the winter months. The combination of the two factors gave coaches a few headaches. The Dutch and Belgian coaches faced situations in which the BeNe League had ended on 6 June, exams had occupied most of the month, and players needed to be brought back to peak fitness levels before mid-July. Preparation therefore relied on take-away individual fitness programmes. Curiously, the teams who played in the final in Oslo were among those with the briefest preparation schedules: the Dutch had assembled three days before the opening match, having previously staged three two-day training camps. Jorge Vilda had got his group together five days prior to departure and Spain had played no preparation games at all – arguably a factor which contributed to the opening day defeat by the Irish.
But coaches of countries with summer leagues were not immune to doubts about whether domestic club football genuinely prepared the players to compete at the highest international level. The talking points are whether the dates for the final tournament are ideal (the general feeling is that they are an improvement on the May dates adopted in the recent past) and, for the coach, what the best formula is for bringing players to optimum condition by mid-July.