As the qualification stages for the 2018 Fifa World Cup to be held in Russia draws to a close, there are many big names who have missed out and others who narrowly remain in the hunt, troubled by unfancied opposition.
The biggest of the nations (in terms of footballing reputation, not population) not on the plane to Moscow is Netherlands. Dick Advocaat’s side are in free fall, first not making it to an expanded 24-team Euro in 2016 and now failing to qualify for football’s biggest tournament.
For the United States, life has come full circle. A failure to qualify in the 1990s would have been seen as a setback, not a travesty. The fact they will miss out on the World Cup for the first time since 1986, despite Alexei Lalas terming this the generation that “has been given everything”, has come as a shock as the Stars and Stripes finished fifth in the final Hexagonal round of the Concacaf qualifiers, behind the likes of Panama and Honduras.
Australia, on the other hand, had an easy ride when they initially joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2007, comfortably qualifying for the 2010 and 2014 tournaments and winning the 2015 Asian Cup, but almost went out to surprise package Syria, needing two goals from veteran Tim Cahill to keep them in the hunt for a spot.
Lack of youth coming through
There’s a curious set of similarities in all three countries: the domestic leagues are no longer competitive and, in the case of the US and Australia, have no concept of promotion-relegation, there’s too much dependence on veterans and an older generation of players due to a lack of good youth talent coming through.
Corne Groenendijk, manager of the famous Ajax Academy, disagrees when it is mentioned that the Orange are going through a mini-crisis. “It’s not mini anymore, it’s full-blown,” he said, referring to their failure to qualify for the World Cup. “We’re a bit reliant on the past. We have to accept that we’re not producing talent like we did in the ’90s,” he added.
Even though the ’90s saw talent such as Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert, Frank Riijkard, Ruud Gullit and Ronald Koeman, their last and only international title came at the 1988 Euros.
“We’re not getting a chance to mould talent like we used to do,” said Groenendijk. “That is also down to clubs from financially richer leagues signing our players at 18. Previously, we had players who would sign for these clubs at 21-24, similar to a Davy Klaasen who has played more than 100 league games for us before joining Everton at 23.”
Overall, the Netherlands has about 2,500 clubs for a population of 1.7 crore, and about 40 full-time residential academies. Not all of the kids training at these academies are of Dutch nationality, with youngsters like Hakim Ziyech opting to represent other countries instead.
USMNT Residency shutting down
India’s first-ever World Cup opponents, USA, share a common aspect of youth development with the 2017 U17 World Cup hosts. Both countries are in the process of shutting down their residential academies this summer.
That’s where the similarities end, though. The United States are producing some of their best-ever talent in Christian Pulisic, Jozy Altidore, and Josh Sargent. Their Under-17 team alone has players who play for PSG (Tim Weah), Werder Bremen (Sargent) and Ajax (Serginho Dest).
After 18 years of operation, the United States Men’s National Team’s residency program is shutting down as clubs are now mandated to run their own academies, something that was also provided as a reason for the All India Football Federation shutting down its Elite Academies.
US coach John Hackworth, in his third stint as U-17 head coach, didn’t agree with Lalas’s assessment of the “golden generation”, nor was he completely sure about the choice to shut the residency program. “We’ll have to see if the clubs are able to produce players,” he said. “For me, this batch of kids is the most talented we have ever had.”
Steven Maartens, Fifa’s technical director, said that he has worked with developmental academies in the US and that there are 50-60 of them presently which should be able to supply players to the national team.
Hack, as the coach is known, also said that there are now players who are talented enough to make it to European clubs at a younger age. Sargent, when asked about Germany and his choice, “Yeah, I spoke to [Borussia Dortmund’s] Christian [Pulisic] before going there. It was a no-brainer. It’s the best league for young players to develop and we’re seeing many Americans going there.”
Japan have a 100-year plan
There are those like Japan who have a 100-year plan in place. Yamauchi Takafumi, coach education director at the Japanese Football Association, said that the plan is not only to concentrate on the World Cup but also to be the best in Asia consistently.
Takafumi said that when Japanese football had its boom in the ’80s and ’90s, there were no stars for the players to look forward to. Now, with Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and many others in Europe, youngsters taking the game up in Japan have many idols to choose from.
The Japanese coach credited the Chinese Super League for trying to bring European talent at their peak to Asia but has a different model in mind for the J-League. “We are aware that a lot of people watch the European leagues but we want to improve the standard of our league,” he said. “We want more people to watch Asian competitions, like the Asian Champions League.”
Even though they finished top of their qualifying group, sealing their sixth straight World Cup spot, Takafumi is taking nothing for granted and said that they want to conquer Asia on a more regular basis before moving on to higher-quality European opposition.
Good news may be on the horizon for Japan. Ajax youth academy manager Corne said that Japan is the Asian country that’s piqued their interest in terms of talent available. Takefusa Kubo, the “Japanese Messi”, is grabbing eyeballs at the Under-17 World Cup, having spent four years at Barcelona’s La Masia academy.
While some youth systems are on the rise, others are left pondering for new avenues and re-invention. After years close to the top, these footballing nations are working hard not to pilfer years of momentum away.