The various organized football tournaments at all levels have helped in the growth of international football, increased wealth, provided opportunities, and created global champions and superstars. It has helped in numerous ways in transforming lives through sports.
At the sporting level, it has put some unfancied countries in the limelight and established others. It has also created pertinent questions for football lovers, a lot of curiosity will center on the paradox of the champions.
Two countries are very average at producing world champions at the youth level
We start this observation from the top level, the senior world cup, for the European pacesetters Germany and Italy with four titles each, both are struggling to win at the junior levels with the German’s victory in 1981 at the U20 level the only gold medal between them although they have won several other medals and have done well at their continental championships at the world stage they are supposed to be competing with Brazil, Argentina, and Nigeria, these questions are legitimate. It seems that the junior tournaments should serve as a springboard to launch teams into champions and transit them into the senior level for the same purpose, most teams of the senior champions are logically following this path with several of their players as junior champions. Why are the Germans and Italians having poor results at the world youth level?
They have been countries renowned for producing great players, several of them even win world players of the year and the Ballon d’Or awards multiple times, they have clubs with the core of their players winning several champion league titles, players with a definite age range that is good enough to compete with the best in the world and win in any of the FIFA organized tournaments but have not won a single title at any level.
In this category the Dutch are the standard, the Portuguese, English, French, and Spanish have crossed that line. Portugal won the U20 in 1989 and 1991 and recently won the European championship and nation’s league. It may be continental titles but a progression in the right direction, the Dutch are continental champions but have not been world champions of any kind. These are not a form of the indictment but a reality check and a possibility for all countries with a huge talent base. The English victory at the 1966 world cup was like collateral against reproof but in reality, it was a long time before they recently started proving their potential, a dual victory in 2017 at the U17 and U20, the French were continental and Olympic champions in 1984 but between 1998 and 2013 they have been world champion in all the categories (senior level in 1998, U17 in 2001, U20 in 2013). The Spanish were underachievers but have thrown away that tag with great defining feats. They were like the Dutch only with a continental title and not a single world title at any level. But they have won the Olympics (1992), world titles at senior (2010) and junior level (U20 in 1999) in less than twenty years and added dominance at the continental level, winning the European championship back to back(2008-2012) a very remarkable turnaround. In terms of talent and potential, the gap between these European countries is not much.
it does not limit competition to winning titles alone not every country will produce champions but to compete requires some kind of fulfillment and those that can, should strive to win. Credit also to those countries with limited resources qualifying for tournaments or even making an impact in them.
The paradox of the junior champions
These concerns are not limited to Europe, dominant countries like Argentina with six titles at the U20 level find it difficult to win at least a title at U17, or Nigeria, leaders in the U17 category with five titles are incapable of winning the U20 although they have reached two finals. Interestingly both have won the Olympics. The great paradox of the champions.
Age cheating will not be considered a major factor because countries that cheat in a particular category have not won in the other category does it mean that they only cheat occasionally or at particular tournaments also, does cheating always lead to victory? Such circumstance may exist but the argument that the cheating countries don’t have a seamless transition from junior to senior level does not stick because those countries that don`t cheat also finds it difficult to advance a core of their team into the senior teams with distinction. A lot of those players still don’t transition into the senior level. Not in any way support age cheating or diminish some edge it offers but it does not have an absolute advantage or define success like, we will cheat and win, it provides no guarantees. It is also counterproductive. Such reasons that militate against success and a transition of teams stand out such as loss of form, career challenges, high competitiveness due to the great talent pool, dynamic selection process, and differing team compatibility needs. Occasionally cheating, poor officiating or misfortune can give an edge but most winning teams at any level usually stand out from the others.
This brings us back to those critical issues raised
The paradoxes and what we can learn from them.
The Germans and Italians may never win multiple times at the youth level at the world stage but will always provide champions at the senior level a classic case of champions that are fully not team champions at the junior level but as a result of other necessary factors become champions at the highest level. Although several of their players have shown promise at the junior level Toni Kroos is the best example, at both the world and European championships at the U17, he won the best player award. he went on to fulfill his potential. it means that both European teams have so much to teach in terms of champion building at the senior level. This knowledge also offers other countries not proficient at producing youth champions templates for escalated success at the biggest stage. Croatia, a finalist at the last world cup did so without any impact at the youth level. It also shows that there are two methods to the top, the extreme scenario is world champions either from the youth level or as champions at senior level alone.at best Brazil and France represent champions at the junior level becoming senior champions while Germany and Italy represent champions at the senior level without any transition from the junior level. The other senior world champions fall between these two categories. The Olympics is a combination of both age categories with only Spain and Brazil as the only winners going ahead to win the senior world cup since it allowed three over-age players in 1992. It seems that both countries are very adaptable. Both are the first world cup champions from their continents to win outside their continents. Brazil has done it four times (1958, 1970, 1994, and 2002) and Spain (2010) once.
Germany and Italy have proven that winning the world cup at the highest level requires giving players exposure at the youth level, if they become junior world champions surely be an added bonus. The structure at their disposal will mold their players further in preparation for the biggest prize of all. Four titles each is enough testimony of its veracity.
The Dutch have also made effort, at the senior level they have reached three world cup finals more than a handful of strong football countries Belgium and Portugal with none. Sweden, England, Croatia, and Spain with one each, Hungary, Czech, and Uruguay with two but equal with France. they have been unfortunate losing to three very impressive teams. two of the greatest teams from Europe which were among the best in history, in 1974 they lost to host Germany and in 2010 to Spain(both conquered Europe and then the world when they beat the Dutch) and in 1978 to Argentina the only modern host to add another title from three editions the best of the hosting world champion in this defeat their star player Johan Cruyff was not available. But to achieve the success they need to keep trying. They have what it takes. Others before them have overcome similar setbacks.
In the cases of Nigeria the best of the teenage world champions and Argentina we delve further, Brazil and France have won all the competitions by FIFA with Brazil especially, winning each multiple times, the prototype for success, they struggled in some categories before discovering a pathway to win in all. Brazil was the fourth team to win both the senior(Uruguay 1930, Italy 1934, Germany 1954, Brazil 1958)and the U20 (Russia 1977, Argentina,1979, Germany 1981, Brazil 1983)world cups, winning each five times but it took some time to win the U17 and the Olympics which they have also won multiple times. They are double-defending Olympic champions. Like Argentina, The U20 was easier to win than the U17 but unlike the Argentines, they have won both. the Olympics was also difficult for both until 2004 when Argentina won her first and went on to defend it in the following edition just like Brazil has just achieved. Brazil is the only country that has defended its titles in all FIFA organized tournaments(U17-1997,1999)( U20-1983,1985)Olympics(2016,2020)Senior Level(1958,1962) even the defunct confederations cup(2005,2009). They have so much to give teams that are trying to achieve success at any level.
Each country has a unique path or journey to sporting development and success and each stage is distinctively unique to different countries, a team that wins at U17 cannot set up a team for success in U20 almost a three years interval with Nigeria and Argentina as case studies while Ghana and Russia have won both and it took them a shorter time to break that barrier even quicker than the French or the English.
Argentina cannot provide U17 champions but produce outstanding talents from the same teenagers at U20, what is leading to these sudden transformations? For the Nigerians they have come close to losing to Portugal with their golden generation led by a world-class coach Carlos Queiroz in 1989 and also losing to the talented Argentines with Messi in 2005, They will surely have their day in the future. The Argentines have not reached the finals yet but, have three third-place finishes, it could be suggested that the South Americans have a competitive edge after adolescence and their skill set are fully mature providing an advantage over the competition. Brazil had also struggled before winning at the youngest level. It seems that physicality which is not an attribute for the Argentines is usually evident at the U17 which is not a crucial factor at the older level of competition. Brazil with a more diverse team has been able to finally win at that level. Countries with raw innate talent trust their ability and the confidence it provides, which makes it possible to overcome any adversary at the teenage level but as they progress in age, the organization, training, and exposure of others inhibits them when faced with the improved Argentines, Spanish and Portuguese or the might of the Brazilians, Russians or the English- countries that have mastered winning at this level, they usually succumb. Nigeria always struggles against South Americans at that level. While the Spanish usually fall short at the U17 level, they have lost four times in the finals (Nigeria, Ghana, Brazil, and England their conquerors) could all four have cheated? Certainly not they all have something in common which baby la Roja or the Argentines do not have enough, to be able to win at that level at this point.
Some countries mature people better and faster than others as a result of circumstances within. Those tangibles are sufficient to provide an edge and this is not limited but changes in different sports or academic experiences. These manifestations in football are evident. It is also clear that each level of competition provides some essential elements and requirements for winning them creating a paradox for particular countries. These changes even affect the same age grade but different gender. All this can be analyzed in detail, the champions have given us some insight to prepare us for the future.
For the underachievers and those struggling to win in particular tournaments, the solution is logical, create a plan and a structure that will empower growth which will encompass development at the elementary level with emphasis on particular needs, mental or psychological reorientation, physical conditioning, creating a competitive edge. Usually, the talent is already available just to retweak or re-engineer the process. Any country deficient in any youth category can restructure the process as it suits their needs. But, winning the senior world cup requires so much more.