What constitutes success at youth level?

What constitutes success at youth level?

By Paul Williams

There is an interesting debate taking place in Australia at the moment regarding the nation’s U20 side that was recently knocked out in the group stage of the FIFA U20 World Cup in Turkey.

The Young Socceroos celebrate at goal at the FIFA U20 World Cup in Turkey

The Young Socceroos celebrate at goal at the FIFA U20 World Cup in Turkey

The debate centres around this one question – were they a success given they didn’t win a game?

The answer to that depends on which side of the fence you sit on the Performance vs Results debate. However, in my opinion, it’s too simple to say that because they didn’t win a game they were unsuccessful.

First we need to decide what actually constitutes success at youth level. Is it winning games at youth championships? Or is it producing players that go on to become long term players with the national team?

I would argue it’s the latter which is why you cannot determine whether this Young Socceroos team was a success or not for at least another 10-12 years, by which time the players will be around 30 and we will have an understanding of how their careers have progressed.

Looking at Japan is an interesting case study. Regarded by most as the best national team in Asia with the best youth development system, Japan has failed to qualify for the last three FIFA U20 World Cups.

Yet it is during this time that they have taken over the mantle of Asia’s number one with a new breed of young, attacking talent emerging – the likes of Shinji Kagawa, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Takashi Inui etc.

These players have emerged despite Japan not qualifying for the FIFA U20 World Cup, not because of it and this is because of the development system in Japan - a nationwide, uniform youth development approach in which everyone is working towards a larger goal as part of the JFA’s 100-year plan.

Success or “failure” at youth level doesn’t alter the plan. They simply continue their work and focus on the long term, rather than the short term.

Even in the last two FIFA U20 World Cups Japan has qualified for, 2005 and 2007, they have won only two of their eight games. But from those squads have emerged regular national team regulars Keisuke Honda, Kagawa, Atsuto Uchida, Mike Havenaar and Masahiko Inoha.

In Australia plenty is made of the 1999 U17 side that made the final of the 1999 FIFA U17 World Cup in New Zealand, eventually losing 8-7 on penalties to Brazil. It is held up as one of the best youth teams Australia has produced, alongside the 1991 U20 side that made the Semi Finals.

However with the benefit of history on our side we are now in a better position to judge whether the 1999 U17 side was indeed a success by looking at the number of long term national team players the team produced.

It doesn’t make for good reading.

Only one player, Josh Kennedy, has gone on to have a successful career with the national team. You could make an argument for Jade North and Scott McDonald, but you’d be clutching at straws as North is consigned to a fringe role and McDonald hasn’t been a regular part of the national team set-up for a number of years.

One player.

The players of that generation will now be approaching 30 years of age and should be the leaders of the national team driving the team towards the FIFA World Cup in Brazil next year. However, it is the lack of players in this age bracket that has resulted in the Socceroos slipping in the FIFA World Rankings in recent years, with the team heavily reliant on those on the wrong side of 30 with a sprinkling of young talent now beginning to make their way through, the likes of Robbie Kruse, Tommy Oar and Tom Rogic.

With the benefit of hindsight, you would have to say the 1999 U17 side was ultimately a failure. Whilst making the final was a badge of honour at the time, and still is, ultimately what long-term benefit has it reaped?

Which brings us back to the current generation of Young Socceroos. We saw in their performances at this most recent World Cup, against Colombia especially, that the team contains a number very talented players capable of playing very good football.

There are still plenty of areas to improve and there are some very important lessons that both the players and coaches will take out of this tournament that will help them, hopefully, grow and develop in the future.

The hope is that the players from this generation play a leading role in qualification for both Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022, and in Connor Chapman, Daniel De Silva, Connor Pain etc the talent is there to do just that.

Before then this team will, or should, form the nucleus of the team that participates in the upcoming AFC U22 Asian Cup (January 2014 in Oman) where we will get another chance to measure their progression before they begin their campaign to qualify for the 2015 AFC U22 Asian Cup, which doubles as qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

By then most of the team will have had at least three to four years of senior football experience, both at club level and internationally. Some players will have moved abroad to further their football education, whereas some will drop off as natural attrition takes effect.

But if out of this generation comes a number of long term senior national team players then history will ultimately look back to declare this team a success and the “failure” of Turkey 2013 will be long forgotten.

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