FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: England’s youth teams' success typifies a change in mindset and fortunes

“We’ve played how we want our England teams to play. Not just this team, all our English teams are playing like that. Brave on the ball. Two goals down and come back to win 5-2 in a World Cup final; not one long ball. You know, just pass, pass, pass.” – Steve Cooper, England Under-17 team head coach.

England passed and ran. Sharper, stronger, better. At no point could Spain claim to be the better side. More efficient, perhaps, but England had more than held their own even at 0-2. From the first minute when they had a chance to score, the superior athleticism and tactical awareness of Cooper’s boys shone through.

England's footballers celebrate their victory over Japan in their FIFA U-17 World Cup match. AP

England's footballers celebrate their victory over Japan in their FIFA U-17 World Cup match. AP

By the end of the World Cup, England had slammed 23 goals and overwhelmed the best of opposition. In a long time, we have a much-loved English national side which won the admiration of neutral observers too. England may have gotten to this point late but when it did, the results were fantastic.

The challenges were not easy. It was in May this year that England had lost to Spain in the Euro final on penalties while its semi-final opponent Brazil was widely touted among the favourites. But as Cooper emphasised, his team won by playing its own brand of football. A distinct identity is central to the process.

For the first time in history, a nation has won three major underage tournaments in a calendar year. While it might be a leap to attribute the success to a specific programme, it is worth recalling the ‘England DNA’ project which was launched in December 2014. With the aim of developing a style of play which would be identifiable with England, the programme was directed towards the development of youth sides from the under-15 age group.

On Saturday, Cooper dedicated the success to the work carried out under the project. “This trophy is dedicated to the good work that is being done back in England, in the academies and the development of young players. These players have been in the system for three-four years. They have been on a journey, a pathway. For me, it is recognition of not just where English football is but where we want it to go.”

The direction was certainly clear in the tournament. The English boys represented the tactical intelligence, athleticism and technical ability which are prized highly within the national setup now. No longer are Charles Reep’s ideas in vogue. It was certainly a welcome change to see an England team outdo a traditional heavyweight on the international stage. To do it in a World Cup final, from two goals down, was particularly exceptional.

The words of Santiago Denia were particularly revealing of the impression England has left. “England forced us to play on the transitions by stepping up and putting pressure. We didn’t have the control of the match.” This was something experts would often say about England’s opposition in the past. But this time around, superior technical ability and physical strength defined the English side.

That conclusion marks an incredible change in perception. For only a year ago, English football was at its lowest ebb after a loss to Iceland. There have been numerous points when England was frankly embarrassed in international football. Germany at the 2010 World Cup, group stage exit in the following tournament in Brazil, failure to qualify for Euro 2008…

But England’s youth sides this year have a typified a change in mindset. There’s a confident outlook to the teams built on a belief that they can match anyone. England has chosen to firmly move away from the culture of insularity which had dogged the country’s football sides for long.

With the senior team managed by Gareth Southgate, who was one of the brains behind the England DNA project, the success in youth football surely bodes well for the national setup. On a personal level, the manager’s encouragement of players seeking employment abroad is worthy of appreciation. In the aftermath of Brexit, Southgate’s openness is arguably necessary.

The cosmopolitan outlook has nurtured belief. While such things can be overplayed, it was encouraging to see England come out early for the second half with the side trailing 1-2. Belief ran through the side that the adverse situation could be overcome. Past English sides were known to be diffident in similar circumstances. Notably, England had not won an underage World Cup until this year. Now the national side has earned it twice within six months.

Of course, certain things went England’s way. In India, thanks to the vagaries of the draw and a last-minute scheduling change, Cooper’s boys had the benefit of playing six matches at the same venue — Kolkata. Although the crowd at the refurbished Salt Lake Stadium had firmly pitched its tent in Brazil’s camp, there was no doubt which team had the overwhelming support on the day of the final. England, with its football and goals, had won Kolkata over.

If Steve Cooper is to be believed, there’s more to come. “We have a long-term plan. We are still at the beginning of it. We’ve got a long-term vision for winning World Cups.” The youth sides have already won two. Although the senior team is not among the favourites for next year’s World Cup, it may not be very long before the success at youth level is carried forward.

Arguably, the U-20 World Cup win has greater significance in this regard. The roll of honour over the years has seen the likes of Argentina, Brazil and France lifting the trophy. So, England are in elite company. However, it needs to be remembered that Ghana won the U-20 World Cup in 2009 and it has failed to qualify for next summer’s showpiece tournament in Russia.

The U-17 World Cup has historically been a preserve of African teams and England is only the fourth European nation to win the competition in 17 editions. So, one could say that the gains at this level could also be lost in a few years’ time. Particularly if the talented English players fail to break into their Premier League clubs’ first-choice eleven.

Yet, for England, 2017 represents a remarkable turnaround. Before this year, the youth sides’ best display in underage World Cups was a third place finish in the 1993 U-20 event while it had failed to make it past the quarters in the U-17 competition. The silverware will grant England belief that the country can turn the tide in senior international football. The change has begun. After all those years of despair, hope shines brightly over English football.


Updated Date: Oct 29, 2017 13:54 PM

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