Over the last two years, the football kingdom has been ruled by the English and the Spanish teams which have maintained a high level of supremacy over their Italian counterparts, winning all the major competitions in Europe. Of course, winning alone does not guarantee a team’s hold over football, but the way the Italians have recently surrendered in European competitions has raised a question on their status in European football.
Apart from Italian clubs, even the recent performances of the world cup winning national team has not helped boost their depleted power. If the reasons for this downfall are analyzed, one major highlight is the unreasonable youth policy in Italy. An eye opening report by the FIFA commissioned Professional Football Players’ Observatory (PFPO) suggests that only 12.8% of the Italian youth stars have made their way into Italian teams.
As a consequence to FIFA’s report, the critics want the youth to be given a fair chance at the top-level of football, especially when the old folks find it hard to get a hold of the ball, quite literally. Criticism should always be taken constructively, but this argument has projected Italian football in an altogether different tangent.
The stringent media policies in Italy do not allow young stars to hog the limelight. They do not have the freedom of interacting with media without prior permission. This had led Italy’s young talents to believe that to get a chance at the top and be in the limelight, they need to sign up for an English or a Spanish team. There is a feeling in Europe that Italy is deprived of talented youngsters, judging by the way Italian teams field veterans virtually all the time.
The truth, however, is far from perception. If we bother to look at how the youth teams in Europe have performed in the last decade, it can be easily concluded that Italy has some of the best young talent in the world at this point of time. For instance, the Italian youth team has been crowned champions a record five times in the European U-21 championships.
So why on earth aren’t these promising youngsters given a chance to prove their mettle where it matters? This can be attributed to the winning mentality in Italy. In Italy, from the managers to the support staff, from the Tiffosi to the club owners, and not to forget the media – all want instant results in their favour. So even if a youngster is fielded, he has the burden of expectations right from the moment he steps onto the field. There is no settling-in time or a buffer period; one needs to deliver right away. Such weight on the shoulders of a youngster can be too hard to handle, forcing the management to shift their priorities towards the more reliable and experienced lot. The interpretation? The young talent has had his chance and he has blown it. The young footballer fades away.
Contrast this with English football. A youngster will be thrown on the field in a pressure cooker situation, and will be given the freedom to express. This is the way the young men blossom over there. Consider the case of a seventeen year-old Italian boy named Federico Macheda, who was brought off the bench by Sir Alex Ferguson in a tense situation, and he happened to score the most important goal of United’s season.
Sir Alex could not help but launch an attack on the Italian system, saying he doubted if an Italian native would have had the guts to make this move. Macheda was not allowed to play when he was with Lazio, due to the Italian football association’s law which barred under-18 players to sign professional contracts. Of course, Lazio’s loss was United’s gain, and the Italian system fumed could all but fume at Sir Alex’s comments.
This brings us to the second reason. A youngster in Italy is carefully and slowly brought into the system. Any youngster aged below 22 is deemed unfit to play top-level football. This is one of the prime reasons why one of the most promising boy in recent times had to move to Manchester United and then to Villareal. Giuseppe Rossi ,when asked of his chances to go back to Serie A, had just one thing to say- “Italian teams are scared of their youth”.
The followers of this ‘experience over youth’ policy will always proclaim that this is the way Italians have played and won their accolades, so why would they want to change a winning policy? Consider Marcelo Lippi’s 2006 World Cup winning squad, the average age of which was above thirty years, and yet managed to win the world cup, knocking out countries with a better youth policy in the process. On the contrary, Lippi’s current core squad still consists of a majority of players who were there in the 2006 team, and their performance in recent times is proof enough to ditch this policy.
Paloschi is a name that comes to mind when we talk about the ill-effects of this policy. After showing a promising start with Milan, he was transferred to Palermo in the Serie B in a move to let him develop. Sebastian Giovinco would have been a household name had he been in England or Spain, but surprisingly, people at Turin are talking about letting him go. With people like Mourinho in charge, some changes were expected; it was refreshing to see youngsters like Davide Santon and Mario Balotelli giving a hard time to some of the experienced flavours of Italian football.
The supporters of this adherence to the youth policy will always argue with examples like Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero, who were developed and nurtured, which is a major reason for them being still around. Their bodies were not thrown into the rough and attacking game at the top level, unlike players like Michael Owen who entered the top-level at a fairly young age, and have had to battle with long-term injuries throughout their careers. They will always point out Italy ‘s success in the past with this policy, whilst teams like England are yet to taste success on the International stage..
Is it time for the Italians to change their habits of resting on their laurels? They will point to the success they’ve had but Italy could well be deemed as a ‘retirement home’ and risk being left behind for years in the race for the World Cup.