FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: With books in tow, teens from different nations seeking footballing glory in India

Sometime in May this year, while the rest of his Germany teammates were preparing for the UEFA U-17 Championship, Dennis Jastrzembski was cooped up for over four hours in a room in the team hotel in Croatia writing his Math-Science exam.

It’s a measure of how much emphasis the German Football Association (DFB) lays on the education of their players that the federation even flew in an examiner to Croatia so that Jastrzembski could give his exam.

England U-17 players celebrate a win at the UEFA U-17 Championship.

England U-17 players celebrate a win at the UEFA U-17 Championship.

Even when they are in India for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, Germany players have to undergo two-hour-long school lessons. The team has travelled to the country with two tutors — one for language and another for math-physics.

They are not the only one.

In an email interview with Firstpost in July, England’s U-17 coach Steve Cooper had spoken about how the team always travelled with a teacher for every exposure trip or tournament abroad.

“We place a lot of emphasis on the education of our youth players. It's really important that as part of our work, we're not just developing footballers but good young men as well. Their academic education is an important part of that.

“We come with provisions to support them; we travel with full-time teachers, we find time in the schedule to allow them to dedicate to their studies every day so when they go back they are in a good place," Cooper had said.

In fact, England's FA has set up a Welfare and Education Department, which is headed by Caitlin Hawkins, to ensure focus on the education of young players. A welfare and education officer from the department is always at hand with every England age group team, both men’s and women’s, during camps and at tournaments.

"My role is to facilitate the various pieces of work that the boys are sent by their club or school during camps and tournaments. This can range from GCSE and A/S levels to BTEC and NVQ. The boys have between one-three hours of education per day except on match days and travel days. This is timetabled into our daily schedule and is afforded equal status to anything else. England has Education and Welfare Officers because of the importance attached to education and the fact that all children under the age of 18 are in full-time education in England. Therefore it is a continuation of what happens in both their schools and their clubs. There is close liaison between The FA and these establishments to ensure continuity and progression in their work. The welfare part is equally important as the players are minors so the role is to ensure they are safe and happy whilst away with England," Kevin Batchelor, Education and Welfare Officer of the England U-17 team in India, told Firstpost.

"The education of players in the youth age categories is a priority area of focus particularly in exam years where the boys do GCSE and A/S level exams. Some of our boys sat their GCSE and A/S level examinations at the European Championships. In fact, in Bulgaria in 2015 eleven boys sat 47 exams with one boy sitting 11 over the course of the tournament. This can be quite stressful at an important time for both education and football but has worked well with results being as expected or better," added Batchelor, who has been on 17 national camps with team coach Cooper.

New Zealand coach Danny Hay also echoed Cooper.

While the cash crunch facing New Zealand’s national football association put severe restrictions on the number of support staff members that travelled to India, Hay said that all of his players had brought their books to study during the down-time.

“We cannot afford to have a teacher travelling with the team. We do have a lot of downtime here in India so the boys have brought their books along. We trust the boys to do their own studying. There's some sort of personal responsibility.

“I'm a qualified school teacher so I understand that education is THE most important thing. Football is...” trailed off Hay.

Coming from a country which only has a semi-professional football league, Hay knows how difficult it is to make it as a professional. He made it to the big stage when he signed for Leeds United back in 1999, but played a handful of matches for the English giants before his career took him to clubs like Walsall, New Zealand Knights, Perth Glory and Waitakere United.

“We've got to be realistic about the chances of our players playing at the highest level. Yes, we want that to happen. We want them to become professional footballers and make a living out of the game, but the reality, as history will tell you, is that there will be one or two who get that opportunity and might genuinely make it in the game.

“So the priority for us is making sure that even while they're here, in the back of their minds, they're still concentrating on their schoolwork and there is still some focus on that.

“Our players are pretty diligent boys coming from good families. The reality is that all of them will be doing some sort of schoolwork because you can't have essentially a month off studies. When they get back home, they have Level 2 or Level 3 exams, which are major milestones. So they'll have quarter of an eye on that on that too,” the 42-year-old said.

Some of the Mali players too have brought along books to India. Mali's media manager Tangara Yacouba pointed out that football was part of school curriculum back in the West African country.

In contrast, three of India’s U-17 footballers said they were “only focusing on the tournament” when asked about studies. One of them, when probed further, revealed that he last went to his school back in April 2016 before adding, “Nahi, kuch mahine pehle gaya tha No Objection Certificate collect karne. (No, I actually did go to school a few months back to collect an NOC from my school.)”

As lucrative as a career as a footballer sounds, the spectre of a bad injury ending that dream looms large over every player. In such instances, a lack of education also severely limits the scope of pursuing an alternate career.

“We value education a lot. It forms the basis of our players’ sports training. We also make our young footballers understand that the first thing is the value as a person and human being for the achievement of sport and life goals,” Chile coach Hernan Caputto had told Firstpost in July.

While Spain have also brought a tutor to India, players from the USA U-17 team too have a slot reserved in the afternoon for studies when they are at Florida’s IMG Academy. The Academy, part of USA’s full-time residency program, has produced stars like Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Christian Pulisic among others.

Updated Date: Oct 16, 2017 13:20 PM

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