The French may not have a direct equivalent to the word ‘teenager’ (there being no numerical suffix akin to ‘-teen’ in the language of Molière), but that doesn’t stop them remarking on the novelty when a player under the age of 20 is called up by the national team.
It happened twice earlier this month, when 19-year-olds Raphaël Varane and Paul Pogba were both included in Didier Deschamps’ squad for the World Cup qualifiers against Georgia and Spain. Pogba rather spoilt the symmetry by turning 20 the following day, but it was such a rarity that L’Équipe marked the occasion with a photographic slideshow of the players to have graced the blue jersey while still awaiting the end of their second decade.
Varane and Pogba are exceptions. The expectation, in France, is that players will earn their spurs in the junior versions of the national team before eventually graduating to the senior side. France’s under-21 squad – known as les Espoirs (literally, ‘the hopes’) – brims with exciting players such as Milan striker M’Baye Niang and the Lyon pair of Clément Grenier and Alexandre Lacazette, but although they play for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, there is no clamour for them to be promoted to the senior squad before they are ready. That is partly down to the depth of talent already at Deschamps’ disposal, but it is also, partly, cultural.
Exceptional indeed is the player who is excused an apprenticeship in France’s representative youth teams. Despite Pogba’s widely acclaimed performances for Juventus this season, Deschamps has admitted to reluctance about allowing him to stroll straight into the first-team set-up. As recently as January, the former Marseille manager said the midfielder still needed “some carrot and stick” before he could be considered for selection. Both Pogba and Varane impressed on their debuts against Georgia on Friday, but afterwards the word on Deschamps’ lips was “potential”.
It is rare for a national coach to exercise quite so much caution in England, where young players tend to be drafted into the senior squad as quickly as possible. Earlier this season, Raheem Sterling received his first senior call-up before he had even been selected by the under-21s, and with only eight competitive appearances for Liverpool to his name. Wilfried Zaha made the jump from under-21s to seniors in less than nine months. It follows a recent trend: Theo Walcott made his debut for the senior team before he had played for the under-21s and Wayne Rooney skipped the sub-21 age range altogether.
Since the 1990 World Cup, England have taken nine teenagers to major tournaments (Phil Neville at Euro 96, Michael Owen and Rio Ferdinand at the 1998 World Cup, Gareth Barry at Euro 2000, Rooney at Euro 2004, Walcott and Aaron Lennon at the 2006 World Cup, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Butland at Euro 2012). In the same period, France and Italy have taken none. Had a rebuilding Germany not included 19-year-olds Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski in their squad at Euro 2004, the statistic would be the same for the Germans.
So are England’s teenage players missing out on a key part of their education by being fast-tracked into the senior side? Stuart Pearce thinks so. “I believe the key to our senior team being successful lies in what goes on from the age of 21 downwards, what experience of tournaments and winning they’re getting,” says the England Under-21 coach. “Then they know what it’s like to win together and they take that with them into the seniors. I think we’re missing a trick by not doing it. In my mind, that’s what’s going to unlock us being successful at the top end.”
The final of the Under-21 European Championship in 2009 was a striking case in point. Germany romped to a 4-0 victory over England with a side containing Manuel Neuer, Jérôme Boateng, Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil, all of whom started the game in Bloemfontein a year later in which the German senior side inflicted a similarly chastening defeat upon their English counterparts in the last 16 of the World Cup. James Milner was the only Englishman to play in both matches and Joe Hart was the only other player to feature in both England squads.
Roy Hodgson may have moved quickly to cap Sterling and Zaha at senior level due to the threat they might elect to switch international allegiances – Sterling having been born in Jamaica, and Zaha in the Ivory Coast – but if an established pattern of progression from the under-21s to the senior side was in place, England might not need to worry quite so much about their most prized young talents fleeing the coop.
From a technical perspective, England’s eagerness to promote teenage players to the highest level of the international game could be explained by the uniquely physical emphasis of the English game. Amid such focus on pace and power, speedsters like Owen and Walcott or powerhouses like Rooney can dominate youth-level matches in a more demonstrable manner than the way an equally gifted but less physically imposing player might influence a game in a different country.
The obvious pitfall is that it loads unrealistic expectations upon players whose advanced development in relation to their peers owes so much to their physical precocity. As a broad-shouldered 16-year-old, Rooney amazed with his ability to compete against opponents twice his age, but now he is just one more burly centre-forward in a game that abounds with powerful players.
A common lament cast in Rooney’s direction – and it has been aired on this blog – is that he has not turned into the player everyone hoped he would become, but perhaps this is only as good as he was ever going to be (and it’s not like he’s had a disappointing career in the first place). Were it not for English football’s impatience with regard to the development of teenage players, both he and Walcott (whose exposure to the media spotlight at the age of 16 did him no favours whatsoever) might have been able to learn their trade unencumbered by the impossible expectation that they would be able to indefinitely preserve their margin of superiority over the other players in their age group.
Pearce at least appears to be getting his way with Sterling and Zaha, both of whom dazzled in the England under-21s’ 3-0 success against Romania on Thursday, so the tide may be turning. Although the temptation to see how such talented players react to senior international football is understandable, the approaches adopted by England’s European rivals suggest there might be something to be said for giving players a full education at junior level first.
Assessments of Rooney’s international career will always be coloured by the knowledge that he was unfairly heralded as his nation’s footballing saviour from the moment he first donned an England shirt at the tender age of 17. Whatever becomes of Varane and Pogba, it is a pressure they will never know.