After an esteemed career as Uefa’s technical director and a role as sporting director with the New York Red Bulls, Andy Roxburgh became the technical director of the Asian Football Confederation in 2015. He first worked in Asia at the U-16 World Cup in China in 1985. With the U-17 World Cup in India days away, Roxburgh spoke to The Field about youth development in Asia, the continent’s chances at the tournament, football in India and his time in the game.


Nigeria won the 1985 U-16 World Cup, beating West-Germany in the final. Brazil finished third.

It’s a long time ago. The quality was good. As per usual at youth tournaments, the Brazilians had some great quality and the Germans were very efficient. Nigeria were physically and mentally mature. They were also competitive and resilient. At the U-16 and U-17 levels, results are often influenced by the maturity of the players. The players who may turn into stars are not necessarily the most competitive ones at that level. The number of players that do make it is very limited – perhaps one or two will make it.

At the U-18 and U-19 level it’s different: players begin to show what they will become. U-17 competitions need to be put in context. Success, either as a player or as a team, doesn’t per se reflect what will happen later at the highest level.

Maturity is important but why do so few players progress to the professional level?

It’s the bridge and it applies to both the U-17 and U-19 level. That bridge, from being a talented youth player to becoming a professional and perhaps a national team player, is very precarious. Many youth players get too much praise too early. They lose their drive. Talent is one thing but desire to keep pushing yourself is another.

Often, the players who missed the national youth teams or missed it by a whisker would become the top players, because they had still motivation. There are so many reasons that players don’t cross the bridge. You have to tell youth players what the reality is and tell them how they can cross the bridge.

Some players you see and you know right away that they are outstanding. In Nyon I watched a young boy called Ramos with Spain. He happens to be Real Madrid’s captain today. I noticed that he had a great chance to make it. He could play but he had a competitive passion. I watched Wayne Rooney score against Spain at a U-16 tournament. He had a right good chance of becoming a star player. You need to have the potential but realising it is another story and a very complex one.

At the 2017 U-17 World Cup, India, Iraq, Iran, Japan, and North Korea will represent Asia. Do you notice a big gap in terms of youth development between Asia and Europe? At the senior level, the gap between Asian and European top teams is palpable.

In general terms, Spain, England, Germany and France have a history of grassroots work, youth development, academies and an entire professional set-up around it. It’s very difficult to quickly match up to that history and that infrastructure. Germany ticks all the boxes: youth academies, knowledgeable coaches, coach education, the Bundesliga, grassroots level. It’s a whole package.

Wim Koevermans, the AFC deputy technical director, who used to coach in India, the hosts of the U-17 World Cup, told me that the boys who came to play for the Indian national teams had very little experience of playing competitive football. They were selected via a camp but there was no structure in the youth system. They played locally, with friends, on the streets. In Germany a five-year-old will already get coaching. He will play small-sided games and regular competitive matches as a teenager. Once he gets identified as a talent, he will play with the best. That foundation provides an enormous advantage.

India have been on tour nearly non-stop for the last two years. The team will be well organised with talented boys but they don’t have the depth and background that you get in a football environment. In Asia, in general, there is a lack of grassroots structure, elite youth competitions, top level academies and specialised training for youth coaches at the elite level. There is overall a lack of investment in youth development, when compared with the best of the world.

The AFC and the members associations are working on it. Europe has run U-18 youth tournaments annually since 1947. In Asia it’s still only every two years. Belgium and other European countries even have development teams, a U-17 team with players who were born late in a particular year. You get two teams in one age band. AFC is aware of this but it has to be brought into practice.

The Asian teams have talented players and will be well organised but when you look behind that facade, Europe, Mexico and other countries have a clear infrastructure which provides an advantage.

The grassroots level is problematic in Asia. The problem has long been identified and India is one of those countries where it hasn’t been addressed.

In the last two months the AFC has introduced a grassroots charter – it’s an endorsement programme. We are doing the same with coach education, introducing a coaching convention, the same one that we had in Europe. Later this year, we will also introduce an elite youth scheme. I have introduced a youth panel, next to our coaching and grassroots panel. The AFC is in the phase of promoting, stimulating, organising and supporting the member associations.

It often comes down to funding. Without enough funds you are inclined to spend on your national team and your national league. The grassroots are then viewed as “it will come from the streets”. That was even the case in Europe in the past. Grassroots have to be structured and invested in. The tide is turning in Asia. People understand the need and the value of grassroots now, but it will take time before the grassroots level is well established in Asia. In Europe it is very well developed.

What do you expect in general from the U-17 World Cup in India? Ghana won the previous edition in Chile in 2015.

It’s a different environment. Teams will have to adapt. That is the first problem going to this tournament. You have to adapt to living conditions, climate, food, etc. Germany, England and the other leading countries are very sophisticated about taking their young teams away to competitions. At this level it’s difficult to say what to expect.

Mexico, Ghana, Brazil, Colombia and others have a good history at these tournaments but you can’t predict how they will do. At the senior World Cup you can make a sound prediction who is going to be in the last four. That’s very difficult at this level. It is interesting that India took their team all over the world so that they won’t be surprised by the different styles of football.

What’s the beauty of an U-17 World Cup?

As a competition itself, it’s a scout’s paradise to go and spot the one player that you think could be a star one day and keep an eye on him later. In Finland, I watched Spain play Brazil on an artificial pitch. I was sitting near the halfway line and the ball bounced off the pitch and the young Spanish midfielder hit a magnificent half-volley diagonal pass to his right full-back who was racing down the touchline. It was fantastic and I immediately wrote down his name on my pad. His name was Fabregas. I needed to keep a note of this boy. He looked like an outstanding player and he turned out be quite good.

Can this tournament really boost football in India?

The promotional effect of this tournament is not in doubt. You hope it will have a big impact in India. Asia can have an incredibly bright future if China and India develop into powerhouses. This tournament can stimulate the game and hopefully trigger long term development but it’s only one event.

There is already a lot of development going on in India but the U-17 World Cup should develop more interest and investment in the grassroots level, academies and the game. Once the professional league smoothes itself out in India, that will have a major impact on coach education and youth development.