Argentina's youth development structure needs an overhaul
Ever since Cesar Luis Menotti, with a World Cup trophy under his belt, took the unprecedented decision of leading the Argentina U-20 national team to the FIFA World Cup in Japan in 1979, Argentina's youth divisions soccer has been a source of national pride.
For a country which recently surpassed Brazil in the export of players, taking into account the considerably smaller population of Argentina, the question of how the country manages to produce so many talented professionals often arises.
There is not one straightforward answer, but part of the explanation can be found in the existence of an expertise in what is locally known as
Whereas for many working with children is seen as a steppingstone toward first division professional coaching categories, there exists in Argentina a wide reference base of serious professionals committed to working with the young and who see this as an end in itself.
Whether at national level or at club level, the grooming and nurturing of future stars is a field taken most seriously. For decades, the emergence of athletes capable of taking on the worlds best has been continuous, and on the international arena, Argentina boasts trophies and cups signaling the prowess at World Cups in the Under 20, Under 17, and even Under 15 categories; South American tournaments and prestigious friendlies.
Yet there's concern that something is wrong with Argentina's current youth development. In February, the U-20 squad failed to qualify for the Olympic Games (despite being defending Gold medallists), continuing a streak of bad results which started in 2009 when the U-20s failed to qualify for the World Cup in Egypt and the U-15s got knocked out of the first round in the Bolivian South American Games.
It is difficult to understand exactly why this is happening. Away from the national squads young players continue to emerge and excel both locally and abroad. The factory of talent seems to be as strong as ever, and as the economies of clubs become more and more dependent on the sale of young players, more and more appear to fill the vacant positions left behind.
So it would seem something is remiss in the Argentine Football Association -- it is not the bad results alone that are a cause of worry, but rather the general sense among the soccer-loving population that the younger squads are not a pleasure to watch.
Perhaps, one explanation is to be found in the structure of how youth managers are appointed. In 2008, Sergio "Checho" Batista was named manager of the youth divisions, with Tata Brown as his field assistant. Their first major challenge was the Beijing Olympic Games, where with Tevez, Messi and Riquelme among the U-23 (with an allowance for a couple of older players), the Gold Medal was lifted with apparent ease.
But Checho had his own sights in the adult squad, and while Maradona was appointed to handle this in 2009, Batista seems to have held on awaiting his chance at the main squad and somehow neglecting the youth. Bizarrely, despite not qualifying for the Egypt U-20 World Cup, he has been given management of the senior national team.
Following the string of disappointing results more recently (failure to make the cut for the Olympic Games last month perhaps the most poignant, but a more recent defeat by Uruguay in Peru hailed as further evidence of the crisis by local commentators) the question that begs is what is going wrong?
There seems to be a clear connection between the experience and expertise of the coaches in charge and the performance on the pitch -- currently, the attention which was yesteryear paid to the youth sides within the international training facilities, is simply waning.
It is interesting to note that while this happens the private sector is ever innovating and experimenting: well established academies such as the prestigious Club Parque (co-managed by Ramon Maddoni and Batista's brother Bocha), which acts as feeder for Boca Juniors, continue their work. In addition, new initiatives such as Barcelona funded Club Barcelona Lujan pave the way in creating schemes which house young players who will eventually be placed in clubs for no transfer fee.
Already, the heir to legendary defenders Daniel Passarella and Roberto Ayala is believed to be residing in the Club Barcelona Lujan complex run by Jorge Raffo. Originally groomed as a traditional enganche (playmaker), Arian Pochetti, from the '95 category, is already tipped as being the central defender to watch out for in 2018. Oscar Garr, current manager of the national U-20s, regards him as having the most impressive potential in the country.
The business of developing tomorrow's stars is fraught. The pressure from families and sometimes entire neighborhoods relying on one child making it so that a way out of empoverished circumstances can be achieved can be overwhelming. Agents and touts looking for the next kid who will become a ticket to multimillion transfer tags abound. And as competition and wages increase in Europe, buying cheaper and docile young performers becomes de rigueur.
This is an industry in which the sale of children isn't outlawed, but in fact positively encouraged. The game we love thrives on the fresh arrival of consummate professionals, so there is much to be said for the countries with a tradition in forming them being able to continue so doing.
But Argentina's current demise at international youth level appears symptomatic of an old model which has become too comfortable in its set ways, and is now crying out for profound change and a radical shake up of the underlying structure.
Youth squads can have a bad day, a bad result and even a losing run. That alone need not be cause for alarm. But what is becoming increasingly evident in Argentina's case is the lack of a solid project, a vision.