Domestic European club football ended in May, but the football season itself seems to march interminably on. We’re in the middle of an intriguing Confederations Cup tournament played against a tricky political backdrop, and Major League Soccer is rich with several interesting storylines, not least the continued rise of Jack McInerney and the Philadelphia Union this past weekend. As I’ve written countless times, there is no off-season any longer in football.
What’s perhaps more intriguing is the continued interest in youth soccer. While I can’t seem to find any decent reports of UEFA’s Euro U21 TV ratings, it was nevertheless the subject of fairly intense social media attention. And now we have FIFA’s U20 World Cup. Today for example, interest in the U20 World Cup steadily percolated among US soccer fans during their second group stage game against France, a 1-1 draw. Tweets were written, write-ups promised. Big wheel keeps on turnin’.
This interest in youth football is partly the result of organic interest from football fans, eager for more product during the sport’s down time, augmented by insatiable media coverage and the non-stop, faux-meaningful patter on Twitter. It is also the result of TV networks in need of more and more valuable sports properties to prop up ratings and keep advertisers—increasingly looking more and more to digital properties—close to home.
A perfect storm. So, is there any good that can come out of a world that suddenly finds itself watching and studying a lot more youth soccer?
I have no idea. I do have a series of vague thoughts on the matter that may or may not have a basis in reality.
My only tangible experience with perennially popular youth sports involve a) the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships played over every New Year’s break, and b) NCAA college football and basketball. The former tournament is simply a means for Canadian hockey fans to beat their chest about their country’s ability to continue producing the best hockey players in the world. The latter is a financial juggernaut that exploits players for the sake of generating a lot of money for everyone save the actual players.
In both instances, fans seem to have a pretty good idea watching these things of which players will make it in professional sports and which are “typical college players.” I have no clue in either sport, but I do know this is a thing people talk about with some confidence. I presume there is likely good analytical work being done on this count as well, isolating key performance indicators which separates out the amateur level utility players from the out-and-out future pros. I presume, but I don’t know.
I’ve also picked up (by osmosis) the basic, core criticism of youth hockey and NCAA: they exploit young, unpaid athletes for commercial gain or nationalism under the guise of “player development.” I don’t want to get into this too deeply as it’s outside my pay grade, but I do want to speak to those things in youth football.
I don’t see UX tournaments becoming the focus of an exploitative commercial juggernaut anytime soon. First, many of the players at this level are academy products, and many already play in the first teams of Europe’s leading professional clubs. This means the FIFA tournaments are showcase events rather than a “first look.” We know who most of these kids are, even if we don’t follow their club very closely the rest of the year.
Second, the football calendar is so packed and hard for viewers (and networks) to plan for that youth tournaments held every two or four years are never going to compete with the Euros and World Cups proper. They’re clearly a pleasant add on, a reason for pundits (yours truly most certainly included) to write things like “This is how finals should be played!”
So then what ‘good’ can this relatively recent, increasingly intense coverage on youth soccer provide? At the very least, a bit of a messy, inaccurate picture of which nations continue to lead the way in player development. To use a very, very spotty example, Italy were youth champions in 2000 and 2004 in the Euro U21 tournament; they were 2006 World Cup champions and finalists in the 2012 Euros. In 2006 and 2007 the Netherlands were champions of the same tourney: they were 2010 World Cup finalists. This isn’t exactly foolproof of course; Italy bombed out of the 2010 World Cup, and Holland crashed out of the 2012 Euros in similar fashion. But you get the general idea.
What matters more here are the respective first teams and the number of international stars featured therein. At the very least, prolonged debate over what factors go into that crucial transition from 18 years to 20 years to 23 years. What, if anything, do the success stories have in common?
And then from there, what do the successful footballing nations have in common with regard to player development? With so many different nations involved, the tournaments provide an opportunity for fans and broadcasters to discuss various national development models and their related pros and cons, which in turn might lead to a more mature conversation about the success/failure of the senior national team than the age-old “sack this guy, hire that guy.”
Again, none of this will have any actual effect on anything. But if fans watching these youth tournaments begin to look beyond the current coaches and available squad in determining why their national team succeeds or fails, it might make this current media fixation on any and all FIFA/UEFA/COMNEBOL/hell—CONCACAF tournaments worth it.