Skill and maturity grow hand in hand as players go up through the ranks of youth football. But the key is in the competition.
To gauge the value of youth tournament football, it is worth opening the pages of Andrés Iniesta’s book The Artist: Being Iniesta. Inside is a fascinating insight from Iniesta’s former Spain team-mate Fernando Torres into the precious learning curve that a youth competition can provide. In this case, the U-17 World Cup in Trinidad and Tobago in 2001. Iniesta and Torres were then 17 years old and key players in a Spain team eliminated in the first round after defeat by Burkina Faso. On the plane home, Torres and Iniesta sat writing a letter about the difficulties encountered.
“The awful training facilities, the completely unacceptable standard of hotels, the debatable quality of the food, the travelling ...” Torres remembered.
“That tournament helped both Andrés and me grow up fast, because it showed us the flipside of this game, the pain of defeat,” added the Atlético icon. “We were the main players in that squad and so we were singled out for blame when it all went wrong.” The lesson served both men well.
As Torres explained, he wrote a message on a shirt that he gave to Iniesta on their homeward journey from the Caribbean. It read: “One day, you and I will win the World Cup together.” The striker’s prescience was impressive. Iniesta, as we now know, would score Spain’s winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final against the Netherlands, two years after Torres himself had decided the destiny of the EURO 2008 final against Germany.
This just shows that there can be something significant to learn in defeat as well as victory. And the intensity of the occasion can give the lesson extra force.