This week the last qualification matches for UEFA Euro 2020 will be played. So far Belgium, Italy, Poland, Russia, Spain, and Ukraine have secured direct qualification for the tournament, which will be held from 12 June to 12 July across 12 countries in Europe.
At Euro 2016, the number of participating countries was increased to 24, which allowed smaller footballing nations to qualify. In France 2016, this resulted in some surprises with Iceland and Wales reaching the quarter and semi-finals. Based on the current standings, some more surprises, like Kosovo and Finland, can be expected. This can be seen as a pay-back for the National Football Federations for the programs they have developed in collaboration with the national football clubs. As it becomes more and more difficult for smaller footballing nations to compete with the countries like Germany, Spain, Italy, France and England - which benefit from strong national leagues that benefit from high income from TV rights, more qualification spots and with the additional income from UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League.
Despite 24 qualification spots for which 55 countries are eligible to compete at the European Football Championship, it becomes important for the smaller nations to develop strategic programs in order to compete with the bigger nations. Together with the national football clubs, strategic plans need to be made to raise the level of talent development across the country. Developing an infrastructure that allows young players to practice the sport at any time and high-level coach development courses to ensure the country has enough quality coaches to provide young players with customized training programs is essential. Transference of knowledge between clubs and National Federations to support a strong network of academies, with the latest technologies and expertise, is the key.
Iceland is a good example. They have proven over the past years that a country with a population of only 360,000 can compete on the world stage due to a smart strategy. In 2014 Iceland reached the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualification play-offs, but eventually lost to Croatia. In 2016 Iceland out-performed Turkey and the Netherlands in the UEFA 2016 EURO Qualification group to secure second spot behind the Czech Republic. This was the first time Iceland had qualified for a major tournament. They repeated the feat in 2018 by winning the qualification group for the FIFA 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The rise of Icelandic football is a result of strategic investments made by the Icelandic Sport Authorities in partnership with the Football Association of Iceland and the Icelandic football clubs. They have invested heavily in coach education, designing frameworks that stimulate the technical skills and competitiveness of young players. The investment in full-size indoor training facilities across the country to allow children to practice and compete during the entire year, has resulted in young Icelandic talent being recruited by academies and clubs in the Dutch, Belgian and Swedish leagues; leagues that have proved the ideal springboard to the top five competitions in Europe.
The combination of young Icelandic players who have gained competitive experience abroad and veteran players like Kolbeinn Sigthorsson (former Ajax Amsterdam, Nantes, Galatasaray and now AIK), Aron Gunnarsson (former Az Alkmaar, Cardiff City and now Al Arabi), Arnór Sigurðsson (Now CSKA Moscow), Gylfi Sigurdsson (former Tottenham Hotspur, Swansea City and now Everton) and in the past Eidun Gudjohnsen (former Chelsea FC and FC Barcelona) managed by a successful coach, forms the foundation for the current success.
The Dutch league has always been well known as a solid platform for young players to develop and make the step up to top senior level football. Compared to other leagues, young players get the opportunity to play every week, which is crucial in the early development stage of a football player. Therefore, most of the Dutch football clubs invest in their academy structure to develop national talent or recruit exceptional talent at a young age from abroad. Names like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wesley Sneijder, Luis Suarez, Stefan de Vrij, Virgel van Dijk, Christian Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen, Dries Mertens, Georginio Wijnaldum, Memphis Depay, Davinson Sánchez and recently Mathijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong are just a few examples of young talents that made the journey from a Dutch football club to a top tier team in Europe.
AFC Ajax is well known for developing young football players. In the ’70s and the ’90s they managed to dominate European football with mainly “homegrown” players, winning the Champions League four times, two Club World Cups, one UEFA Cup Winners Cup and one UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League). The Bosman ruling in 1995 and the start of the commercialization of football had a big impact on this dominance. The big football nations were receiving more money from TV contracts. Money that was used by the clubs to attract the best players in Europe, had a big impact on the quality of the clubs and leagues within the smaller football nations. Clubs from smaller nations were dominated by the clubs from the top leagues and had to fight hard to qualify for the UEFA Champions League, which is the financial jackpot for football clubs. This forced smaller clubs to change their strategies to keep up with the top teams, most of the time without success and resulting in financial problems. This resulted in an ever-growing gap between the top leagues and the smaller leagues. If a club from a smaller competition did manage to deliver a successful season at international level (Porto 2004, Monaco 2004 & 2017), the consequences of all the good management, planning and strategy usually resulted in the departure of their key players to the dominant clubs - or clubs that were purchased by wealthy investors (E.g. Chelsea FC, Abramovich; Paris Saint-German, Qatar Sports Investments; Manchester City, Sheikh Mansour).
Late in 2010, after many years being defeated in international competitions and without having won a national title for seven years, Johan Cruijff started his “revolution” to bring AFC Ajax back to the top. With restructuring of the famous academy - which was no longer delivering - more playtime for “homegrown” players in the first team, salary caps, a better internal and external scouting system and less money wasted on transfers, the club aimed to get back to the top with more attacking and attractive football. The plan was to get back to the top of the Dutch league and from there to make the step up to the European level. The revolution resulted in four national titles in a row, but on an international level, AFC Ajax was still not capable of matching the European giants. They were not the only club lacking international success. The other Dutch clubs were not delivering, and the result was that the Netherlands dropped down the UEFA country coefficients list. This made it even more difficult for the clubs to reach the Champions League and get the crucial funding to compete with the top teams.
The failures of Dutch football clubs at international level also affected the performance of the Dutch national team. In 2010 the Dutch national team (average age 31) delivered an outstanding performance finishing in 2nd place at the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa. But the lack of new young talent resulted in a disappointing performance at the UEFA 2012 EURO. After an unexpected 3rd place at the FIFA 2014 World Cup, with the Dutch national playing in a more defensive formation and relying on individual qualities of Robben, Sneijder and van Persie, the team didn’t qualify for UEFA 2016 Euro or the FIFA 2018 World Cup. By missing two major events, the Netherlands dropped from a 1st position (August 2011) to a 36th place (August 2017) in the FIFA ranking. The disappointing performance of both the national team and the clubs provoked many discussions about the quality of the Dutch system and the status of talent development across the whole system within the Netherlands. Similar topics were discussed in Belgium in the late 90s and early 2000s, which has resulted in a successful strategic plan in 2006 what can be seen as the blueprint for the current Belgian success.
Has the revolution of Cruijff, who died in 2015, failed? No, on the contrary. The revolution created a ripple effect within Dutch football, despite the fact that the plan was written originally for the resurrection of AFC Ajax. Not everyone was convinced about the exact plan and its implementation. But in the sub-conscious, it has made many sport organizations and football clubs reflect on how they were managing their academies and talent development programs. And this was the key element in Cruijff’s high-level - and not very detailed plan - that needed to be changed.
Football has changed over the years, not only financially but also the game itself. It has become a more physically demanding sport and without excellent technical skills, which are the core of the Dutch football school, players won’t survive. Besides AFC Ajax, many academies have put more attention on the development of athleticism instead of only football-related skills. An -individual development approach rather than purely team performance. Knowledge transfer amongst football clubs, the Dutch Football Association, the Dutch Olympic Committee and other sports federations have been initiated, resulting in talent development and academy reviews and certification. For several years, the Dutch system has seen the effects of these changes. Clubs like AZ Alkmaar, AFC Ajax, PSV Eindhoven have been producing more complete football players; football players who can make a difference to their teams’ performances at an early age, week in, week out.
In the same time frame, AFC Ajax realized that the changes initiated by the Cruijff revolution didn’t help the club to close the gap at international level. The Cruijff revolution has brought AFC Ajax financial wealth, that allowed them to change the strategy; by releasing the salary cap, the club could combine homegrown young talent with experienced and high-quality players, resulting in a more balanced team. This was the missing link, which enabled the club to return to the top of European Football during the 2016/2017 season; a loss at the UEFA Europa League Final and missing out on the UEFA Champions League Final last year as a result of a goal conceded in the sixth minute of extra time. The successes over the past seasons has seen the Netherlands climbing back up the UEFA country coefficients list, which means that the Dutch clubs in the coming years will have more and better access to crucial funding through the UEFA competitions.
The successful changes have resulted in young talent from the Dutch teams combined with some international stars forming the new foundation for the Dutch national team. With Ronald Koeman appointed as head coach, the Netherlands (currently ranked 12th) has seen a successful Nation League campaign and are currently leading the UEFA 2020 EURO Qualification group. This weekend they can secure their first qualification to the finals of an international tournament since 2014. All thanks to Johan Cruijff? Difficult to say, but a new strategy and change of plans, has put Dutch football back on the map.
England; pitfall of a strong league
This season a young talented AFC Ajax team has played an impressive brand of football in the UEFA Champions League, with two entertaining matches against Chelsea FC. Since the arrival of Abramovich, Chelsea FC has entered the top of European football by heavily investing in big football stars and buying large numbers of very young players from smaller European countries. Young players who are put on loan to other clubs to increase their transfer value at a later stage. A contrary strategy to Iceland and the Netherlands where they focus on the development of young talent to help them reach their maximum performance potential. This summer, Chelsea was given a two-window transfer ban by FIFA in which they cannot register any new players who are above the age of 16, after breaking FIFA transfer regulations 150 times, including the signing of 70 youth players. Without new signings and the departure of some big names, Chelsea was forced to play this year with more young players. So far, this has resulted in a spectacular season. A young and dynamic team has been shown that they are able to compete within the Premier League and against the Champions League teams.
This might have a positive influence on the performance of the English National team. The enforced changes at Chelsea have resulted in four young Chelsea players being added to the national team; Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, and Callum Hudson-Odoi. However, the question is whether these young players would have been given playing time if Chelsea had been allowed to make their investments during the summer. The club is currently appealing the FIFA ban at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and hopes to re-enter the transfer market in January 2020. Will this have consequences for these players who have proved themselves to be Premier League material? Something that has been a problem for the talent development process within England since the success of the Premier League. Due to the enormous influx of TV funds in the late ’90s, the Premier League and Championship clubs have signed large numbers of foreign players. As a result, English players have fewer chances to play and gain experience at the highest level; vital experience that is missing in the development stage of young English players. This has contributed to the relatively disappointing performances of the national team since the mid-’90s.
A serious worry for the FA; having the strongest league in the world, but not being able to deliver enough quality players to compete for prizes at an international team level. Hopefully, the Chelsea transfer ban has been an eye-opener for English football that will prompt the FA together with the clubs to develop policies and strategic plans that will allow English talents enough playing time at the highest level. A plan that will lead to the first World Cup since 1966? Or will this happen as a coincidence of the transfer ban? In that case, it is to be hoped for the sake of the England national team, that the ban will be maintained and that the Chelsea players can continue to gain valuable experience during a full season. Experience that has been the missing link for many years. The Three Lions secured qualification for the finals in comprehensive fashion, but this may prove to be a fig-leaf.
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