When England beat Spain in the final of the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017, they clinched the coveted age-group trophy for the first time ever. Read that again. England, up until this year, had never won the U-17 World Cup. As a matter of fact, the defeat in the final meant that Spain have not won the U-17 title. Ever.
Neither have Germany, who have four senior World Cups to their credit. Argentina, who have won the senior World Cup twice, have never won the U-17 equivalent, not to mention missing out on qualification this year.
But what explains this phenomenon?
One factor is that teenage players from traditional heavyweights are often not used to the conditions that prevail in the countries which host the World Cup. Take a look at the host countries of the previous 10 U-17 World Cups — Chile 2015, UAE 2013, Mexico 2011, Nigeria 2009, South Korea 2007, Peru 2005, Finland 2003, Trinidad and Tobago 2001, New Zealand 1999 and Ecuador 1997. Most of these countries have never hosted the senior World Cup. So unfamiliarity is one factor.
“At the U-17 level it is difficult to say that ‘we want to win the World Cup’. Sure, we are here to win every game, but if you look closely, there has just been one team from Europe in the last few years who has won the U-17 World Cup. That was Switzerland in 2009. One of the biggest factors that hinders teams from Europe from winning the U-17 World Cup are factors like the quality of the grounds. The weather is also something they have to get used to in a short time. In India, European teams have had to get used to the humid conditions,” Germany assistant coach Rainer Zietsch had told Firstpost after the group stages. For the record, besides Switzerland, just France (2001), the Soviet Union team of 1987, and now England have been able to wrap their hands around the glittering U-17 World Cup trophy.
But there’s a bigger factor at play. For most footballing heavyweights, the U-17 World Cup is just a platform to help expose their players to unfamiliar conditions and quality opposition at this level. Not winning the U-17 World Cup is hardly a disaster.
“In Germany, each time a team goes to a World Cup there’s the pressure of expectations. The pressure to do well. The expectations are high. But for coaches and players it’s more of an experience in their career that they may not have otherwise. Sure we want to win the World Cup, but it’s not the only thing,” Zietsch added.
What Zietsch is alluding to, is that at this age group level, established footballing nations have other priorities than winning the World Cup. For teams like England, Brazil and Germany, the U-17 World Cup has come to represent an opportunity to groom youngsters for the senior World Cup, which is the ultimate goal for any country.
Of course, playing at the U-17 World Cup means different things to different countries. For the African teams, it is a platform to show off the level of football at their grassroots. For some teams like North Korea, which have very little contact with the rest of the world, the U-17 World Cup offers a rare opportunity to test their strengths against the best from the world.
“This is the development team building for future. Nobody is going to get carried away. The expectations will obviously rise with us being the winners of two World Cups but we have a long-term plan, we will stick to our plan and always be positive. The long term goal is winning the World Cup and Euro at senior level,” England coach Steve Cooper said at a post-match press conference moments after his side had won the U-17 World Cup on Saturday.
Brazil coach Carlos Amadeu, during a press conference ahead of the World Cup, was reminded of Brazil’s inability to win a U-17 World Cup since 2003. He responded by saying: “An achievement for us will be if they (players) get into a professional team in the future. But if we can do that by winning a trophy along the way, that’ll be a positive for us too.”
Brazil were eliminated in the semi-final by England.
“Back in England, people are really pleased with the development of these players. The players have been working hard and if they keep working the same way I don’t see a reason why they can’t get into the senior national team.
“Of course we want to win. But we want to work in a way that when we end the tournament the players are in a better position in the longer term working towards the next stage of their development. This is a development tournament. These are all development teams. You got to have one eye on the future,” Cooper had told reporters after his side’s 4-1 win over USA.
For a country like USA, however, the immediate future when it comes to the senior World Cup looks bleak. While the junior USA team were in India competing at the U-17 World Cup, the senior team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. For a country like USA which only sees mass involvement in ‘soccer’ when the World Cup comes along, the failure to qualify for the marquee event raised the pressure on the juniors to go all the way.
“For all of us, at US Soccer, it’s kind of unacceptable that we did not qualify (for the 2018 World Cup). We expect our team to be in that World Cup. It’s a tough day for American soccer,” USA coach John Hackworth told reporters during the group stages.
“(But) it doesn’t change what we as a group were trying to achieve in this tournament at all. It does put a little more focus on our team. That’s the reality of the situation and it’s tough for 17-year-old boys to understand what that means. They don’t really know what that pressure means at this point in time. Now there are millions of fans back home turning their attention to this team, because it’s their hope.”
The raised expectations aside, Hackworth was steadfast in what his primary role was.
“I feel me and my staff’s primary responsibility is to groom players. We have to identify the most talented players in the country, we also need to develop them. Secondary to that is to develop a team that can come to a World Cup and compete. That responsibility hasn’t changed, but the pressure, because of the result (USA not qualifying for World Cup), has gone up,” Hackworth said.
The final word on the issue comes from Turkey coach Mehmet Hacioglu.
“Yes, development of the players to make them good enough for the senior team is the ultimate goal. But as long as we are playing a match, be it in the stadium for our national team or on the streets with stones marking goalposts, we want to win,” Hacioglu said.