Good showings at the youth level can quickly turn into first-team places for the right players
De Gea an inspiration to young goalkeepers hoping to break into first team
Football scouts from the world’s biggest clubs have been in the UAE for the Fifa Under 17 World Cup. The competition is hugely attractive to enable clubs to spot emerging talent as almost all the players are still playing in their native countries and are largely unknown to the wider world.
A few, such as Croatia’s Alen Halilovic who has just signed for Bayern Munich, already are with major clubs, but it is mostly a pool of untapped talent.
Players are usually contracted to professional domestic clubs – as with every Argentina player in their squad – but that does not mean they will stay at the club.
“The Under 17 tournaments give us a chance to see some of the best emerging talents,” says Eric Steele, the recently departed Manchester United goalkeeper coach who spotted the goalkeeper David De Gea at 17 – while working for Manchester City.
“David was playing for Spain in the European Under 17 tournament in Belgium in 2007,” which Spain won. “I wasn’t there to specifically watch him, but this matchstick of a goalkeeper did two or three things in that game which made me take notice.”
“He had nothing to do for 20 minutes, when a ball came back to him. He was chased down, but calmly dragged the ball from his right foot to his left and then cleared it to the left-back. When the left back had the ball, David created a new angle and made himself available to the left-back, who passed the ball back. David then pinged it 60 yards to the outside right. I thought, ‘Wow’.
“He had nothing to do for another 20 minutes until he made a great save low, down to his right. I noted in my diary ‘David de Gea. Spain U17’.”
With Edwin van der Sar retiring in 2011, United began actively scouting De Gea and watching him for his club, Atletico Madrid, for whom he became first choice just two seasons later, at the age of 18.
Four years later, in 2011, De Gea signed for Manchester United for £17.8 million (Dh105m) – a British record for a goalkeeper.
De Gea’s early chance for first-team action is not unique. Coaches have appeared willing to give goalkeepers, perhaps more than any other position, their chance at a younger age. Find a good goalkeeper at the age of 18, and he could in theory be a club’s No 1 for 15 years.
Consider Gianluigi Buffon, the Italy captain at the 1995 U17 World Cup, who made his debut for Parma at 17 and has been a first choice at Parma, then Juventus and Italy ever since.
Or Iker Casillas, the Real Madrid keeper who De Gea calls “an idol”. Casillas was in the Spain team at the 1997 U17 World Cup and made his debut for Madrid at 17.
Casillas now has 657 games for Madrid, and 151 caps for Spain.
It is a golden age for Spanish goalkeepers, with the likes of Casillas, De Gea, Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes.
“They learn to play with their feet first,” Steele says. “Most start as outfield players. When we do the possession sessions, David can handle the ball really well with his feet.”
And while De Gea is among the best, Steele believes he has significant room for improvement.
“He’s nowhere near the finished article, at 22, just as Joe Hart isn’t at 25,” he said. “David will get stronger and develop his spring. I’m sure the management staff will have faith in him and if everything goes well, Manchester United will have a goalkeeper for the next 18 years.”
De Gea’s path to the top is not uncommon, and it is a sign for the players still left in the competition this year that this is a possible springboard to success.
And there is a good chance that one of the two dozen goalkeepers who have been in action at the 2013 U17 World Cup could soon be a household name. It is their chance to impress, just as De Gea did in 2007.