A fine line between grooming, results

The 24 coaches on duty at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011 have a great deal of responsibility on their shoulders. Football being a results-based business, they have to make sure their teenage stars perform on the day. Yet they also need to keep one eye on the future of their national teams, and ensure their young hopefuls make the most of what is the biggest challenge of their fledgling careers to date.

One coach who has that objective very clear in his mind is the USA’s Wilmer Cabrera. “What we’re trying to do is to nurture players, to create a group who can go on and push for a place in the senior team, and we also want to play football the right way,” he tells FIFA.com. “Nobody knows who’s going to win, but we’ve got just as much chance as everyone else. The boys are excited and will do the best they can, although there’s more to my job than just that.”

Brazil striker Lucas Piazon will be one of the 502 players on show in Mexico. Though mindful of the need for him and his team-mates to continue their football education and play an attractive game, he is also well aware that a more pragmatic approach may be called for, especially in the latter stages of the competition: “First of all we’ll be trying to make a good impression and play our best football, so everyone knows who we are. But if we find ourselves in the running for the title, we may have to worry a little less about making a good impression.”

The ideal for any coach is to win and bring players on at the same time, but as only one of the 24 captains will be stepping up to lift the trophy, it is understandable that the need to get results will take precedence at times.

The world at their feet “It’s very important for them and for their development,” says Denmark boss Thomas Frank, recognising the value of the tournament as a potential launch-pad for a successful career.

Piazon believes, meanwhile, that international exposure at major championships can only be beneficial to the development of young players, exposure that often involves an initial contact with entirely different footballing philosophies and cultures. As well as providing a platform for their own progress, the FIFA U-17 World Cup is also an opportunity for aspiring stars to absorb facets of the game that might perhaps be foreign to them, whether it is mazy dribbling, a fast passing game or even rigorous marking.

Kids of this age sometimes have difficulty concentrating the whole 90 minutes. That’s always a problem. 

“My players will have the chance to match their skills against the very best in the world,” says Josef Csaplar, the man responsible for masterminding Czech Republic’s challenge in Mexico. “It’ll be interesting to see how my team deals with the different styles they’ll face and how they each manage their own expectations.”

The players lining up at Mexico 2011 have already had a taste of international football, of course, having battled through their respective continental championships to reach the finals. As Germany coach Steffen Freund explains, it can be a daunting though rewarding experience: “The team went through an awful lot in the European Championship and I don’t think they’ll be nervous. They’re very much looking forward to the tournament and that creates a positive kind of pressure.”

A journey of self-discovery Freund’s observation raises another interesting point. As well as aiding their technical improvement, competing at the highest level can also help young players find things out about themselves and learn to deal with pressure situations. And as the USA’s Cabrera points out, staying focused is not always easy for players so young: “Kids of this age sometimes have difficulty concentrating the whole 90 minutes. That’s always a problem.”

“We’ve been getting psychologists to do some work with the boys and they’ve already been exposed to some high-pressure situations away from home. I think they’ll be ready,” says Jamaica coach Wendell Downswell, confident his boys can cope.

Naturally it helps if your players have already learned how to deal with the psychological demands of the game at club level. A case in point is France’s cool-headed central-defender Raphael Calvet, already battle hardened thanks to his apprenticeship at Auxerre.

“You can’t do well for your national team if you’re not happy at your club,” says the precocious stopper. “If your club doesn’t get you in the right shape, then there’s no way you can be competitive in the type of games we’ve got coming up. It’s absolutely essential to be fit and in the right frame of mind, and that’s why Auxerre is the perfect place to be. Our coaches give us the physical training we need to be on top of our game and they remind us of the need to keep a cool head.”

Despite his solid grounding in the game, Calvet is still looking to learn at Mexico 2011 and knows he has many more lessons ahead of him. “At our age, there’s always the danger that you feel you’ve made when in fact you’re only just starting out. We get the same thing drummed into us every day: don’t get too fired up.”

“It’s going to be fantastic to come up against the best teams in the world,” says Denmark’s Frank in conclusion. “The World Cup’s the perfect learning curve for the boys, a priceless experience for them in their careers.”