x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Fifa Under 17 World Cup chance for young footballers to grow up

Many of the young men who will play in the Fifa Under 17 World Cup in the UAE will live the greatest footballing experience of their lives. A few will go on to greatness; all will remember the tournament fondly.

The UAE under 17 team during a training session at the UAEFA pitch in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
The UAE under 17 team during a training session at the UAEFA pitch in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National

Juan Sebastian Veron, Anderson, Cesc Fabregas, Ronaldinho, Neymar, Toni Kroos and Landon Donovan.

All have been stars of the Fifa U17 World Cup in the past 20 years.

All became top-class players, although Anderson, the one I see most, still frustrates me.

I know there is a great player there and he is a good lad, though he needs to prove it on a more consistent basis.

But he was a standout footballer at 16, and there will be other future stars on show when the U17 World Cup comes to the UAE next week.

I was in the Emirates recently and heard people talking about the tournament. I hope those people watch the games and support the players. That was the first I have heard of it, since it has received almost no coverage in England.

Major foreign tournaments pass the English by and because they are not there, they don’t seem to matter.

They should. The U17 does matter. It matters to the players who are representing their country and can be a key stage of their development. It is a huge buzz, at that age.

I can remember doing it myself and travelling around Europe to play for England.

My parents and family were very proud and so was I. It felt like being a real footballer, trying to learn the words of the national anthem, staying in hotels and playing in real stadiums, not the fields where I played most of my football at that age.

They also teach you to handle being away from home for a long time. You would be surprised how many players get homesick at age 16.

It was a great experience to come up against different styles of football and players who did not speak English. It was great to come out of the English bubble, where you think you are the best in the world – only to quickly realise that you are not.

Youth tournaments can give arrogant young players a dose of reality. Some kids at top clubs find it hard to take advice. Armed with a professional contract and some money, they think they know everything and have made it as a player.

They haven’t, not by a long way.

The statistics are still stacked against them playing at the top level.

So many boys I played with at 17 dropped out of the game, got injured or ended up playing at a lower level. And some players peak at 15 or 16.

Players mature at different ages as a result of many factors – growth, injury, confidence, training, politics and your manager.

You could be the best striker at a club, but if the manager doesn’t fancy you, then you’re nothing.

In hindsight, maybe some who dropped out would have pushed a little harder, been a little more humble until they did make it as footballers. Of the England players who won the U17 European championships three years ago, only Ross Barkley has genuinely made it at the top level. Connor Wickham, Josh McEachran, Will Keane and Andre Wisdom could all have a bright future.

The rest? That’s harder to call. Still, they will remember their moment in the sun.

I like the U17 World Cup because it is unpredictable. Scotland and Australia have reached the final.

Nigeria have won it three times, Ghana twice, Mexico twice and Switzerland in 2009.

It shows the quality of youth football in the top African nations, something which I am sure will eventually transmit to the full national teams.

I can see African countries being regular winners of the World Cup in the future.

Along with Nigeria, Brazil have won it the most times. They will be favourites this time, along with the holders, Mexico, but football should not be about winning at that age. The coaches will disagree because many of them are not well-paid and want to move up the coaching ladder, but young players should be learning to lose as well as win. They should take it as an experience and be soaking up everything around them. It will all come in useful in the future. The majority of the players won’t make their full national sides.

For many of the 500-plus players ready to play in one of the six host cities, the tournament in the UAE will be the highlight of their career.

Even if they make it to the next Fifa tournament, the U20 World Cup, the odds are stacked against them. Not that a single one of them will be thinking like that ahead of this tournament.

Andrew Cole’s column is written with the assistance of European correspondent Andy Mitten.