The start of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007 is just days away and fans around the globe are busy identifying the teams with the best title prospects. Figuring prominently, it is fairly safe to assume, are perennial contenders Argentina, who will be anxious to break their duck in the competition and snare the one piece of international silverware that is still to elude them.
Famed around the globe for their high levels of achievement, the
country's youth footballers have secured no fewer than six U-20
world titles over the years. Such success begs an obvious question,
however: why have their younger counterparts been unable to match
them? In conversation with
FIFA.com, coach Miguel Angel Tojo tries to shed
some light on the mystery.
"It's more to do with personal rather than footballing aspects," he explains. "In our eyes the U-17 side is all about gaining experience rather than winning and being competitive, and as the coaching staff we can't go round saying 'We have to win because we are Argentina'. Wearing the shirt brings a lot of responsibility with it and that puts an emotional burden on the players. They have to learn to deal with that as they develop and grow."
Tojo is a survivor of the coaching team put together by Jose
Nestor Pekerman during his spell in charge of the juniors, and
grabbed hold of the reins when Pekerman was handed the national
team job and Hugo Tocalli took charge of the U-20s. Continuity,
therefore, is very much the name of the game.
"How can we help them? By being patient and talking to them," says the 53-year-old trainer. "These kids have a duty to perform when they pull the shirt on, but they have to learn to cope with that and take the drama out of it all. Ultimately, the responsibility lies with us, the people who coach them."
Korea 2007 offers the Santa Fe-born coach a tilt at redemption
after failing to steer his side to qualification for Peru 2005.
"I'm not looking at it like that," he assures.
"Naturally, I analysed everything I did and reached my own
conclusions, but with this age group every new generation is very
"You should always look to the future instead of the past, and at the end of the day we want to qualify for tournaments because that gives the boys more opportunities to compete. The more they play in the international arena, the more they develop," he adds in a fatherly tone.
Argentina begin their Group B campaign on Sunday, 19 August against Syria in Ulsan, and will remain there for the clash with Honduras the following Wednesday with their final group fixture coming against Spain in Gwangyang three days later. And the meticulous Tojo has a pretty good idea of what to expect from his opponents.
"Opening games are never easy because the tension stops you from playing well," he said. "The Syrians are also the side we know least. As for Honduras we've taken their win away to Colombia as the yardstick. They'll be dangerous for sure. And there's nothing we don't know about Spain. They're European champions and they always do well at this level."
Argentina's most recent tournament outing came at the Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro, and although Tojo's charges failed to progress beyond the first round, the coach was nevertheless happy with their efforts. "We gave away an advantage in age and the differences are huge in this category. Still, we were able to blood some of the boys in international competition and work as a group."
The biggest obstacles Tojo has had to face during the build-up are injuries to three of his forwards. The first to fall was striker Federico Laurito. Despite recovering from the torn ligaments he suffered in Rio, the Udinese player's return came too late for Korea. Then, just a few days before jetting off for the Far East, Tojo was forced to rule out attacking midfielder Cristian Gaitan of Estudiantes and Independiente front-runner Patricio Rodriguez.
In spite of the setbacks, the
Albiceleste boss remains optimistic. "It's a real
shame for us, but as a coach you have to find replacements. I still
think we're in good shape, though. We've played a lot of
football and we've matured both individually and collectively
since the South American qualifiers.
"Maybe we can improve even more, but this is a difficult age and it's important not to overwork them. Of course we can go over a few technical and tactical points, but there comes a time when you've got to give them the freedom to make their own decisions and learn from their mistakes."
Not that this means Tojo's eyes are not on the main prize. "I really want us to win, but there are some very tough teams around and a lot of games to play. And you should never forget that in football, you're just as likely to lose as you are to win."