It is sometimes difficult to imagine that U-17 players, boasting infectious smiles and wearing braces on their teeth, will soon enter the professional world. In a football-obsessed country like Brazil, this now tends to happen earlier than ever.
One of the knock-on effects of this is that youth footballers have to learn to deal with being recognised in the street, because defending the famous yellow jersey and its five symbolic stars brings with it certain obligations, the most pressing of which is to win.
Is this type of pressure tough to handle? According to Alexandre Gallo, coach of Brazil’s U-17 side, it is not as daunting as it used to be.
“I’d say it’s less difficult," Gallo told FIFA.com. "Everything happens so fast for this new generation that the current U-17 level corresponds to the U-20 stage of the past.
"These days, you’ll find players who are practically professionals in that age category. Now, when I select the U-17 squad, I use the old U-20 criteria. I need to ask clubs for permission, as some of them are already first team regulars."
Gallo certainly knows what he is talking about, having recently taken charge of the Brazilian U-15, U-17 and U-20 teams. “Representing the Seleção at that age is a different experience now," he said. "These kids may only be 17, but their faces are already familiar.
"Of course, all of that creates pressure, but it’s good for the players to learn how to handle it from an early age. It should help them to become leaders more quickly.”
The eloquence and exactitude with which the South American tactician describes the process may give the impression that he has been coaching youth teams for quite some time, but in fact, in the 12 years since the former midfielder hung up his boots, he has coached almost exclusively in the professional arena.
Ultimately, his background made him the ideal candidate to oversee footballers that are increasingly precocious and that are now forced to become adults at an earlier age.
“I took the opposite path from the majority of coaches, and I think that that has been beneficial in this role," explained the 46-year-old. "I treat teenage players with the same seriousness as adults, and the results have followed."
Gallo is no stranger to success. He won the Brazilian League title with Santos in 2004, as assistant coach to Vanderlei Luxemburgo. In his own right, he subsequently claimed two state league titles, with Sport Recife (2007) and Figueirense (2008), as well as the Recopa Sudamericana with Internacional (2007).
“My intention is to professionalise Brazil’s youth teams as much as possible," he said. "The outcome of this approach is young guys like Abner [Coritiba], Gabriel [Santos] and Kenedy [Fluminense], who all play important roles in their respective club teams,” Gallo continued, referring to three youth internationals included in his 26-man preliminary list for the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup United Arab Emirates 2013.
Youth team coaches are often asked whether or not the general focus should be on establishing a winning team, or on instilling lasting values for the future. Gallo’s view on the question leaves no room for doubt.
“As a coach, it’s my duty to select the best players available at that time," Gallo said. "At this level of competition, it’s impossible to think about the future. After all, the best selection criteria for a coach is competition.
"That means playing to win; you need to pick players who are best equipped to win at that particular moment. Youngsters have to get used to these types of demands as early as possible, because they will be present throughout their career.”
In Brazil’s case, ‘playing to win’ and simply ‘playing’ are often viewed as the same thing; winning goes without saying. “When you’re born in Brazil and you play football, you have no option other than to win, irrespective of your opponents, who will often put in the performance of their lives against you,” said Gallo.
This phenomenon can also increase the pressure on footballers’ shoulders. “The squad that travels to the UAE will be mainly composed of the players who won the South American U-15 Championship in 2011. They’re already familiar with pressure. With these kids, everything’s nice and clear, because they already know that nothing in football is easy,” concluded the Brazilian coach.