Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Future is Now

Congratulations to France who on Friday won the European U19 Championship in Caen over Spain by a score of 2-1. Dominated in the first half and trailing by a goal, the French came out a different team in the second least after the first 4 minutes. The 3 before that included 2 guilt-edged chances for Spain who should have sealed the championship. However, France remained composed and equalized in the 49th minute against the run of play on a splendid goal from Gilles Sunu. France wouldn't let Spain play their game by pressuring and harassing anyone with the ball. It ultimately paid off as Alexandre Lacazette headed home the winner in the 85th minute to claim France's 7th championship.

Good for France. Seriously. After what happened at the World Cup, they deserved something to be proud of. 20,000 strong filled Stade Michel d'Ornano roaring on their home team with every touch. Any way you look at it, this was a breathe of fresh air for French football, and more importantly, it was the kids - the next generation - who did it.

How important is winning such a tournament? Perhaps only time will tell. These kids are still extremely young and have important years ahead in their development. Unfortunately, it is likely that many of the players will not feature for their clubs and national teams in the near future. They're still only between 17-19 years old. There is a slight exception to the rule though...

Spain. Now I know I've waxed poetic about this country's football unceasingly. But look at the facts. They've won this tournament four times since 2002. Of the players who won those four championships, seven were members of Spain's World Cup winning squad last month. Of those seven, five started in the first game against Switzerland and three started the final. One, Iniesta, won the whole thing for 'em. Another, Torres, won them the European Championship in 2008.

Of the other finalists in that time frame, 12 total since 2002, seven players represented their country in South Africa. That's eight more squads of about 18 players a piece and they could still only equal what Spain has produced alone. It's an alarming trend that has now begun to leave the rest of the continent, and the world for that matter, in the dust.

What Spain does better than any other country is wean the 17, 18, and 19 year old players to ensure they continually develop at the highest levels. How? To be honest it's quite simple. They play. Regularly.

The Spanish team that lost to France the other day had a couple kids who are already making news. Iker Muniain made 26 appearances for Athletic Bilbao last season netting 4 goals, and is one of Spain's most promising youngsters. His first goal against BSC Young Boys in a Europa League qualifying match made him the youngest player in history to score a goal in a top league or tournament (16 years 7 months and 18 days). Marc Bartra, a strong and physical center back, made his debut for Barcelona in February. Of course there's Sergio Canales, who has already signed for Real Madrid. Don't forget about Danny Pacheco either. There's a good chance he'll leave Liverpool for Real Sociedad to get more playing time.

These kids are playing in arguably the world's best league and producing. They are not warming benches and waiting.

Another reason for success is the unique makeup of the country's domestic league. In most countries, the B teams play each other in friendlies and tournaments - almost like intramurals. In Spain, however, the B teams actually play in the top leagues with the best of the rest. Barcelona's B team plays in the second division along with Villareal B. In the third division, you'll find practically every other B team from the first division. (I know you're thinking, what if Barcelona B wins the division? They can win it but they won't be promoted. The first team and the youth teams cannot play in the same division). Can you get any better experience than playing alongside veteran professionals and the best talent on the planet?

I don't mean to belittle the French players, or the other participants in this tournament. Many are just as gifted and talented as the Spaniards. But signing contracts for big clubs, especially in England, will do nothing but ruin their careers. Training with the best won't make you the best. These kids need to play, and play often.

Spain's manufacturing system continues to produce gems. I would bet that many of the players from Friday, especially the ones I mentioned, will be starting in a World Cup somewhere down the line. It seems ludicrous to make a statement like that about teenagers. Unfortunately for everyone else trying to dethrone Spain, it couldn't be any more accurate.

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