To develop or to win?
Coaches at the Under-19 final round were asked whether their primary objective was to nurture and develop their players for the future, or to win matches and make a concerted effort to lift the European title at this age level. They were unanimous in saying that player development takes priority, but that a combination of the two elements is ideal – winning mentalities are also being fostered at this age as the young players move forward. The UEFA technical observers at the tournament, who spoke at length to all the coaches, underlined the need for both aspects to take on importance. "Of course all the players want to develop, and the coaches also say that the most important thing is to develop the players," said one of the observers, Stefan Majewski. "But if you talk to them a little longer, you will see that none of the players has ever said that they don't want to win a match. The players' development is very important, but let's not forget that every player and every coach needs victories so that the team can feel their value."
Good characters count
The coaches were emphatic about the necessity to include players with a good attitude in their finals squads – and that there should be no place for conflictive or difficult characters who might have an adverse effect on team spirit or cause problems for the coaches. Several trainers said they had left players out of their squads irrespective of their abilities, while others had made use of the right to omit players to reflect on their behaviour before recalling them to action. Serbia went on to claim the title, and one of their main undertakings had been to select players with the right character in order to ensure the proper chemistry that is a recipe for success.
The coaches all referred to the psychological qualities required to handle players of this age. They stressed that it was important to introduce them into a specific national team culture at a championship like this, and to help them develop as people, with the aim of linking the two elements: good person = good footballer. "Of course, every coach decides for himself how to select players for his team," said UEFA technical observer Ghenadie Scurtul. "But the general tendency was that they should be team players. A player may be very strong individually, but if he doesn't fit in with, let's say, the moral principles of the team, then the coaches preferred not to select players like that for their teams."
Calling more coaches?
A proposal made in discussions on the U19 final round was that more coaches might be encouraged to attend the tournament to watch players at this age group and observe the tactical and technical trends that such a tournament brings each year. One suggestion was to link coaching events to the finals under the UEFA Study Group Scheme, in which national associations exchange technical know-how. Another was to make use of local coaches from the host countries within the tournament technical team to give them useful experience.
Cause for reflection
The July scheduling of the competition remains a cause for reflection. Preparation time was short – between two weeks and ten days in most cases – with some sides' first match as a team actually being their first final-round fixture. Some coaches cited the difficulties faced in being unable to bring certain key players due to club commitments resulting from the UEFA club competition qualifying rounds, or because clubs were reluctant to release players at the pre-season stage. Players coming straight from holidays to begin training with their U19 teams also constituted a difficulty, in terms of both preparation and training for/playing of matches. Additionally, coaches were having to work without other players who had made a personal choice to stay at their clubs, for example, to try and make their mark with a new coach.
Regarding squad sizes for the championship, a proposal made from the coaching side was to increase the squads from 18 to 20 or perhaps more, for various reasons. Firstly, if a team went to the final they would be playing five matches, so any serious problem with red/yellow cards or injuries might see them playing the final weakened by the absence of a number of key men – which, as one coach put it, would not be good for football. The view was also expressed that, as some countries had prepared for the tournament with more than 18 players, it might be beneficial to be able to bring these additional players to give them finals experience, even if their playing time was limited. And thirdly, the biological age aspect was mentioned: with some players in a final-round squad reaching adulthood and others still adolescents, larger squads would help ease the demands on players who are less physically mature at this age.
The benefits of staging the UEFA European U19 Championship were clear to see in the case of Lithuania. Although the team lost their three games, they produced some rousing moments, scored a couple of fine goals and their players gained invaluable experience by performing in front of big crowds – 7,436 against the Netherlands, 8,900 versus Spain and 8,075 against Portugal. "I think the participation of Lithuania is an obvious example of how with such a youth football tournament, a small country can achieve considerable progress in the development of football," Ghenadie Scurtul reflected. "It's no secret that when they found that this tournament was going to take place, they created an academy and a special group of players that were getting ready for the European championship. The team showed that in a small country, considerable results can be made in the development of footballers if you treat them in the right way."
Is the future bright?
Given that the U19 finals is a window in on the potential stars of tomorrow, were the UEFA technical observers encouraged by what they saw in Lithuania? "Yes, because in every team there were already one or two players capable of playing for senior teams at a very high level," said Scurtul. "
I am sure that the future for European football is definitely positive, because there is a symbiosis of the mature tactical guidance of a coach and a youthful ardour that players showed in this tournament. Indeed, some players demonstrated a high level of technique and tactics."
"It's always pleasing for a coach when he sees something in a player," added Stefan Majewski. "If he spots a good young player, then he keeps observing him. Here there were a few, maybe between ten and 20 players who will surely be important in the future. The question is whether they will have enough endurance and charisma to keep developing, to be first team players. If they develop then we will surely have the chance to admire them not only in their clubs, but in the national teams too."