No fewer than 504 young players gathered for action on the eve of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011, each and every one carrying his own hopes and expectations. Some are still involved, many have long since departed, but all would agree that they stand to benefit immensely from the experience as their careers open up before them. Nothing could be more normal, of course, given that they have been testing themselves against the finest talents of their generation in front of packed crowds across the country.
What is slightly more curious is that the one individual who seems to have learnt most of all is a silver-haired man in his 1960s who made his top-flight debut as far back as 1968. Currently gearing up to lead his France side against Mexico in the match for third place, Francis Smerecki has been invigorated by the adventure on Colombian soil. “Before this, I’d only known the professional, adult game, not youth football,” he told FIFA.com shortly after Les Bleuets lost their semi-final to Portugal. “After five years with this generation, I’ve learnt a lot – in particular that you have to get over defeats quickly, because the youngsters themselves waste no time before looking ahead.”
Smerecki has been coaching these players since he was appointed U-16 boss in 2006 and, after five years at the helm, he is now prepping them for their last ever match at U-20 level. They have clearly gained much from his guidance during that time, and the man who began his coaching career at Limoges before spells at clubs including Valenciennes, Le Havre and Nancy, readily admits to having expanded his own skill set through their influence. “I’ve learnt to adapt my management style to my players, because the world of an adolescent is vastly different to that of an adult,” he explained. “Above all, I’ve learnt that, at this age, you have to give players time to progress and not expect everything at once. You can ask much more of a young player than someone who’s seven or eight years into their career, but your approach has to be different, even if the goal remains the same: to get the players to perform.”
Those methods have helped guide France through to the last four of the FIFA U-20 World Cup and undoubtedly opened doors to first division and perhaps even UEFA Champions League football for certain players, but Smerecki will nonetheless leave the tournament with regrets. “If there’s one thing that saddens me, it’s not having been able – in one way or another – to give the players even more experience,” said the man voted Ligue 1 coach of the year with modest outfit Guingamp in 1995. “Basically, in France they get to play 15 top-level matches in the youth teams per year, plus five or six with their clubs. What they actually need to be doing is playing 50. They have to wait years to accumulate experience, so we need to find a way of providing them with more between the ages of 18 and 20.”
Experience and meanness
Inexperience certainly cost Les Bleuets dear against Portugal, their opponents pouncing on two errors in concentration to prevail 2-0. “They’re not used to playing at the highest level and that’s the problem,” added Smerecki. “That’s what we need to improve in terms of youth training. Our youngsters lack experience. Take Kalidou Koulibaly, for example, the player who made the foul that led to Portugal’s penalty: he’s only played 12 matches in the second tier. That’s not enough to learn how to be smart and avoid doing that. My players are profoundly honest, kind and almost naive. At the top level, you need a little meanness.”
The Le Mans native has no doubt why his team ultimately fell short against Portugal, but for the moment he is unwilling to pass judgment on his charges’ campaign as a whole. “It’s not finished yet,” he explained. “This last match has a lot riding on it. We finished second at the European U-17 Championship, we’re European U-19 champions and, if we add third this place to our list of honours, we’ll have finished on the podium in three major tournaments. That’s the challenge we have to take on. Top-level sport, and football in particular, is about a series of wins and defeats every three days, and each time you have to go out and do better in your next game.”