Anyone in doubt about the importance of the U-17 age category to modern football need only read what Brazil U-20 coach Alexandre Gallo told FIFA.com on the subject: “Everything happens earlier for the young generations today, they develop much more quickly. In countries like Brazil, the U-17s are now at the same stage that the U-20s were in the past. It’s at this age that we find players on the cusp of turning professional.”
Several examples from the Brazil side that finished fourth in the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011 back up Gallo’s opinion. Centre-back Marquinhos, for instance, started every game in the tournament, and months later he moved from Corinthians to Roma. Today, at just 19, Marquinhos is a Paris Saint-Germain player and one of the most expensive defenders of all time. Full-back Wallace and attacking midfielder Lucas Piazon were snapped up by Chelsea and are currently on loan at Inter Milan and Vitesse, respectively.
Further proof that these are the footballers of the future is borne out by the fact that scouts from all the major clubs are in the stands at UAE 2013. No surprise, therefore, that many teams have planned for the tournament in exactly the same way as they would have done for the full national side going into a World Cup – on and off the pitch.
Attention to detail
Before setting off for the first World Cup of their lives, the Brazilians are put through their paces, and not only in terms of sharpening their shooting or honing their defending skills. Media training and other special lessons at the Sao Paulo Training Centre were part of the pre-tournament preparations.
“It was very profitable. Together they learned about problems that can crop up and the best way to deal with them. Although they are free to use the social networks as they see fit, a series of recommendations were issued,” said Gallo. “We also held a conference about the different refereeing styles in the different continents, to prepare them for the officiating at the World Cup.”
The preparation starts as soon as the squad is announced. Several teams have brought a sizeable delegation to the tournament, including a wide array of specialised professionals to work with the stars of the future.
The physical conditioning of players today involves the increasing use of cryotherapy. “Young footballers play more games and are under more pressure than ever before. Their bodies work harder and mature more quickly than somebody with a sedentary lifestyle. We make extensive use of cryotherapy, applying spray immediately after an impact or bruising, and organising post-match ice baths,” explained Morocco’s Dr. Samir Bensouda. “Ice baths are much more beneficial for young players, as they recover from muscle tiredness much faster than older ones.”
Like Gallo, Dr. Bensouda also highlighted how much more detailed the planning is in U-17 football nowadays, covering a far broader scope of areas than merely post-match recovery. “I’ve been working with the U-17 team for three years and I’ve seen a rapid development in the methods used. There is more collaboration with the clubs and the coach. From the pharmacological point of view, there are far more options available, including vitamins, magnesium, and so on.”
Beyond the pitch
Laura Ferrari is the only woman in the Uruguayan delegation. She has the same credentials as her colleagues, but on match days she takes her place in the stands. Her task is less visible, but no less important: she works on the psychology of the Uruguayan players.
“I have been welcomed with open arms by the coaching staff, and the lads have treated me with the utmost respect,” said Ferrari, who is one of female duo who work regularly at the Uruguayan base, from the U-15 level upwards, in what is considered a pioneering project. “We place a big emphasis on preparation. We monitor the day-to-day routine and carry out weekly group activities, as well as individual sessions that may be formal or informal.”
In light of these considerable advances, efforts are also made to ensure the players are not over-pampered. “Everybody working with these young lads should always keep in mind that they are also educators,” added Gallo.
The coach made his players take part in a lesson about the host country of the World Cup, harking back to an experience that left its mark on him from his playing days. “I was the Atletico Mineiro captain and we went to play a tournament in Vietnam. Atletico recruited a history teacher to talk about the country. I never forgot that. So we had a lesson about the United Arab Emirates. The players have learned about the country: its origins, the currency, its tourist attractions, and so on. This can only benefit the competition.”
No matter how much these youngsters feel they are on their way to becoming professional footballers, dreaming about playing in full stadiums and lifting trophies, sport is not an exact science with a predictable outcome.
Every year the competition for a place at a club, let alone a national team, is more and more fierce, which explains the need for no stone to be left unturned in their development, not only as football players. As the psychologist Laura Ferrari made a point of emphasising in relation to her work with Uruguay: “The most important thing is to nurture their human qualities.”