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Twenty years ago the Spanish FA President Angel Villa Llona decided that youth development was the key to the future and that coaching education was crucial. They have had this long to develop a pool of young talent and their recent spectacular successes are the result. In short their brilliance has been entirely a footballing revolution by design.
Iker Casillas not only collected a World Cup Winners Medal in 2010. His first Winners Medal was whilst representing his country in the U16s European Championships in 1999. He has been collecting them ever since. Spain takes international football seriously and has a reservoir of talented players waiting in the wings. Just take a look at the quality of their bench whenever they play.
England unfortunately does not. We do not treat our national youth team properly. Clubs are not keen to release players for tournaments and they miss out on the experience and the education derived from playing other international teams at that age. Premier League teams are notorious for withdrawing prospects sometimes meaning a good young player has little game time.
They have incredible potential but the only way to realise that is to compete at the highest level. To be the best you have to beat the best. The Premier League, as good as it is, hinders our young players’ development.
Medical experts are agreed that the Premier League’s intensity and pace is such that our teams enter tournaments both physically and mentally exhausted. A winter break has been suggested but the “money men” won’t allow it and England players are expected to pull on their shirts with the same tired grin.
There is however a Sea-change. The National Football Centre at St Georges Park will train the much needed excellent coaches in larger quantities who will bridge the gap. Academies too are slowly changing. The emphasis is now on players who are clever, quick, agile, skilful and strong as opposed to the archetypal brave and strong Englishman. We need both. There is just too many of the latter. Far too many!
Roberto Martinez has been quoted as saying that Iniesta and Xavi would never have made it in a British team 6 or 7 years ago. They are not tall or strong enough. But things are changing. There are English players who are technical but the crucial age from 18 to 21 needs improvement. Many managers fearful of the sack rely on trusted imports rather than young and raw recruits. Only the managers with the most job security like Ferguson and Wenger blood youngsters or send players out on loan (Evans and Welbeck to Sunderland and Cleverley to Watford and Wigan).
This loaning out makes players realise that they are fighting for their career. It makes you less arrogant. That is a lesson that we need to learn. The Spanish players are incredibly humble. Barcelona players are noted for their humility, and it shows in the work-rate and the way they behave and treat other people.
This all comes from the youth programme. Their aim is to mould good characters as well as good players. If you do not comply they let you go. Iniesta and Xavi are both extremely shy but they express themselves on the pitch. In Spain ability itself is not enough. It is the better professional who gets through. 9 of the Barcelona B team are undergraduate students. They are producing fine intelligent men who can think for themselves whereas we do everything for our youngsters. We want decision makers but we mollycoddle them and do everything for them.
I have witnessed children being coached in Spain. The groups were no bigger than 6 or 7. The coaches worked on technique, quick feet and movement with the ball. What amazed me was the respect these young players gave to the coaches. They wore matching training kits which were immaculate. Parents never shouted and clapped players at the end of each session. Compare that with Sunday afternoons in youth football in this country!
The erosion of social standards has led to a lack of respect shown to officials and other players at the top level and our children emulate this. It is a cultural thing! Is the right example being set? It is almost certainly not. Xavi has stated that the reason that England is lacking is down to youth development and this lack of respect. In Spain such instances are punished immediately by coaches bringing such players off. We need our own footballing revolution. When are we going to take note?