Are international youth tournaments important?

The 2023 U21 European Championships recently came to a close, with England’s youth team taking home the spoils. The Young Lions defeated Spain the final, with the only goal of the game coming from a deflected free-kick. Nevertheless, England’s youth team triumphed, and this has been something of a common theme in recent years. For example, in 2017, England won both the 2017 U17 and U20 World Cups, as well as the U19 European Championship. They won the U19 Euros again last year.

This is an incredible achievement that deserves commendation, however, how important are these competitions long-term? There was a lot of buzz in 2017 following the unprecedented success. The same occurred since their most recent success, given their dominant performance throughout this U21 European Championships. Nevertheless, it is a harsh fact that youth football success does not always correlate to the men’s game. 

Previous winners

Examining previous winners of youth tournaments, there is certainly a case to be made that many players and even nations, don’t quite live up to the expectations. One example is the 2015 FIFA U20 World Cup winners Serbia. Of that highly impressive side that beat Brazil in the final, only seven players from the whole squad have gone on to play more than 20 games for the men’s side. Many never made it further than the U20 side, whichis a common theme within youth football.

Another example is the French squad from the 2013 U20 World Cup, from which only two players have played over 20 games for the men’s side, A further five players have since switched national allegiances.

However, there have been some exceptions. Argentina’s triumphant U20 squads for both 2005 and 2007 had some true future starlets. It included the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero, Ángel Di María and Pablo Zabaleta.

Another example is Germany’s U21 side from 2009, many of whom contributed to Germany winning the World Cup five years later. Manuel Neuer, Jérôme Boateng, Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil.

However, there are very few cases of success at the U17 level leading to much success down the road, and this is because youth football often cannot be compared to the professional game.

The nation that exemplifies this best in recent years is Spain. La Roja’s golden generation of the late 2000s, which led to European glory in 2008 and 2012, as well as World Cup triumph in 2010. It had players scattered across several victorious youth teams in the early 2000s. However, this has changed in the last decade.

Failed progression?

Between 2010 and 2023, across the U17 and U20 World Cups and the U19 and U21 European Finals, Spain reached eleven finals and won seven of these. However, between 2010 and 2023 – excluding the last hurrah of the golden generation in 2012 – Spain has largely under-performed on the international stage. They recently won the second edition of the UEFA Nations League. Yet, this recently-founded tournament is still considered a minor achievement in comparison to a World Cup or a European Championship.

So, how does this compare to England’s recent success? Examining the three successful youth teams England had during 2017 – which totals to 60 players – only five have worn the senior national team’s shirt more than 10 times. This once again highlights the serious divide between youth and professional football. The problem, particularly in England’s case, may run deeper than just a step up in difficulty. 

Barriers for Youth Players 

With the growing financial power within football, it is becoming more and more likely for sides to look at options within the transfer market, rather than within their club. It has become increasingly harder for players to progress from the academy to the first team, especially if they are contracted to an elite club.

This is particularly prevalent in England, with many sides often choosing to field imported players over local players. An exception is generational talent Phil Foden of England and Manchester City. However, numerous examples point towards the harsher reality.

Recent U20 World Cup champion Cesare Casadei, who won the award for the best player and top scorer at the tournament, is reportedly set to be sent out on loan by Chelsea once again for the upcoming season. This is the most common outcome for many youth players who find early success, As a result, many often disappear into obscurity, or find game time in the lower leagues of the game. 

The importance of youth tournaments

Returning to the question at hand, it is arguable that international youth tournaments are perhaps slightly over-hyped, with many players who feature reaching their peak at these tournaments. As only the elite players will make it to the professional game, it is still a huge achievement to represent one’s nation at any level. Therefore, these tournaments are still important for many, they may provide the greatest opportunity and experience of their lives.

Furthermore, for players that do attract the attention of elite clubs and do have the ability and resilience to make it as a professional player, these tournaments provide a platform for progression. International youth tournaments are a space to express oneself and this should never be underestimated.

Should English fans be excited about their latest youth-level success? Absolutely. It is an incredible achievement. After all, these players should be remembered for their achievements in the U21 European Championships, regardless of where their careers may take them. Another successful tournament filled with exciting talent, international youth tournaments will always be worth tuning into.

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