The unreliability of youth

The international youth tournaments are often cited as the opportunity to see the stars of tomorrow today. In reality it is all a lottery and the tournaments hold very little meaning.

Take the Under-17 World Cup where age fraud has been rampant. The most recent guilty team of this was the 2015 champions Nigeria who were caught last August ahead of an African Nations Qualifier. An MRI scanner, used by FIFA since 2009 to combat overage players, found 26 of Nigeria’s team were overage. Former Nigerian president Anthony Kojo Williams was open to the fact the African country has used overage players at these tournaments.

“Why not say it? It’s the truth. We always cheat. It’s a fact,”

Anthony Kojo Williams.

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The MRI system has its limitation as it only hold 99% accuracy up until age 17, therefore it is not possible to measure for older age group tournaments.

Bending of the rules has led to some unusual names on the Under-17 World Cup. The last three winners of the tournament have been Nigeria, Mexico and Switzerland. Countries that do qualify for the World Cup but are still a long way off ever landing their first ever win in the competition.

The countries that have cheated are in fact cheating themselves. Tournaments at this level should not be about the glory, they should be about developing a style of play for the national team. By planting tactics from an early age, the country can form an identity on the football field. In the case of Nigeria this success has translated to very little and has perhaps regressed them. Failure to qualify for the last African Cup of Nations is example of that.

The majority of the top players have not developed into what was promised. Of the top players in Nigeria’s four wins since 2007, only Manchester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho has managed to pick up a cap at senior first-team level.

One of the best performers at Under-17 event has fell short of their potential. Former Tottenham forward Souleymane Coulibaly netted nine goals the 2011 tournament. He struggled to break into the first-team and has been journeyman for the majority of his career. After spending last season back in England with Peterborough United, he is now with Egyptian Premier League side Al Ahly.

England have been guilty of letting their Under-17 talent get away. In the last seven years, England have won the tournament twice in 2010 and 2014 and were recently beaten in final of the 2017 tournament.

Looking back at the 2010 squad the majority should be in the current England team. That has not been the case and just two in Everton’s Ross Barkley and Stoke City’s Jack Butland have been capped at full international level. The right-back at that tournament, Bruno Pilatos, has completely flopped in football and was recently playing in the ninth-tier Northern League.

On the case of the 2014 squad it is looking more positive with the majority currently in the England under-20 squad for the World Cup that is currently taking place in South Korea. The key for these players is to make sure they get game time at Premier League level.

Particularly in the case of the Chelsea youngsters. Izzy Brown and Dominic Solanke are both assets of the Chelsea academy but neither have made their Premier League debut for the club. For the sake of their future it may be time they considered moving their career on.

More needs to be done to get youngsters who excel at youth level into first-team environments at the highest level they can play. Youngsters themselves need to be much more hungrier to the best at the highest level they can get to. For the majority of the English youngsters, they would thrive at lower league clubs.

Youth football is merely a bubble, it is nothing like the senior game. That’s why these youth tournaments, particularly at Under-17 level should not be treated as the gospel truth. They are upsides to them but until FIFA efficiently stamps out age fraud and these players actually make progression with the clubs they play for they should not be taken too seriously by football fans.