Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil celebrate
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By Jayaditya Gupta
The thing is, you can’t lose with kids. You may lose the odd match or three, you may lose public confidence, you may on occasion even lose your head. But recognising talent and backing it will pay off later, if not sooner. It’s ironic that England were outgunned by youth: the Premier League has two coaches who famously have for long, and with great passion, based their teams’ success on a youth-oriented management policy.
This World Cup has already seen youth, or the lack of it, play a significant role. Italy crashed out with a team of elders - ditto France, who left out Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema but included Djibril Cisse and Sidney Govou. Ghana’s march to the quarter-final is on the back of their world U-20 champion side - three from that team helped the Black Stars beat USA on Saturday. Argentina’s most famous young player is also the world’s best but look at his supporting cast: Gonzalo Higuain and the eye-catching Angel Di Maria are both younger than him, as is Sergio Aguero.
Joachim Low’s side had been written off before the tournament began, criticised for leaving behind a couple of experienced players - Torsten Frings, for example - and for upping the ante over his own contract. Yet he stuck to his guns on the big issue, bringing in the younger players, and then playing them from the start - and in his style. Thomas Berthold, who played under Low at Stuttgart, has spoken about the latter’s emphasis then on tactics, gameplans and, especially, two-touch football. Those technical qualities are now complemented by the ethnic buffet spread Low can choose from, which gives the German team dimensions it rarely possessed in the past.
Above all Germany benefited from the fearlessness of youth. It’s always a gamble playing gifted youngsters in a big game - or, indeed, in a big tournament - but, if they are mentally strong, chances are they will deliver. Ask Sir Alex Ferguson, whose risk-taking with his fledglings back in 1995 is put into sharp perspective by the fact that, back then, he was still only two Premiership titles old - and had just blown winning a third title. Or ask Arsene Wenger, who hasn’t won any trophy in six seasons yet persists, in the face of strident criticism from even among his own fans, with young blood.
What those youngsters play with is “no mind”. Remember The Last Samurai? There’s a scene where Tom Cruise is being trained in swordsmanship: the young boy, after defeating him several times, tells him, “No mind. You have too many mind. You must have no mind.” That’s the sort of tabula rasa a good young player can bring - devoid of context, history and baggage, the mind becomes sharper and more confident.
That is how India’s cricketers won the first Twenty20 world cup and created history - they were on a hiding to nothing, no one expected them to win, they had barely played that format of the game, yet they won that tournament.
Of course it takes a lot more to create that confidence. A good academy system, for one. Germany have it, France had it - their World Cup and Euro wins around the turn of the millennium were created in the Clairefontaine academy - and now Barcelona and Spain have it. England’s clubs have academies but are either hamstrung - or so they say - by the ruling that makes it mandatory to have only local players, or get around that rule by having foreign players come and live close to work.
The most important thing is to recognise that youth can be a risk but to gamble anyway. Sven-Goran Eriksson, whose decisions were seen as conservative and sterile by English fans and the media, took a punt on Theo Walcott four years ago. Fabio Capello didn’t do the same this year, either with Walcott - whose season and form were admittedly blighted by injury, but isn’t that what a gamble is all about? - or with Manchester City’s Adam Johnson. In the event England’s youngest players were Joe Hart and Aaron Lennon, born within days of each other 23 years ago.
Low, by contrast, started on Sunday with four players aged 23 or less. Perhaps Sunday’s game was won and lost there - in the willingness to take a gamble and the preference for playing safe. It’s a moot point as to what would have happened had Lampard’s goal been allowed - would Germany’s players have recovered from the double-whammy? Ultimately, we have to deal with events as they happened. My final thought: Germany won because they weren’t scared of losing; England lost because they feared losing it all. The kids were alright.