After the failure to reach the 1974 World Cup and then the 1976 European Championships, the French Football Federation (FFF) decided to make swift and proactive changes to improve their chances of qualifying for upcoming tournaments and protect France’s long-term future. FFF President Fernand Sastre wanted to focus on youth and a build national centres of excellence to encourage the growth of the next generation of French players. The idea was the brain child of former France National team boss, Ștefan Kovács who had seen similar types of centres at home in his native Romania. But the coach knew he needed Satre’s help to get the idea off the ground. Within 6 years, centres like Clairefontaine were established to nurture new talent and rules had been passed onto all clubs within the league setup regarding youth development and squad selections. The new rules passed made it mandatory that all clubs invest in youth schemes and feature youth players in their squads which encouraged their rapid developments.
Within 2 years, France started to see signs of early success and the national team, inspired and led by Michel Platini, lifted the European Championship in 1984. But it would be 14 years later at World Cup 1998, held ironically in France, that the new generation would finally step forward and lift the cup. Players like William Gallas, Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka all came through the youth setup at Clairefontaine, whilst Zidane, Pires, Thuram and David Trezeguet featured at other centres. The 1998 class would go on to win Euro 2000, which officially confirmed the 1976 restructuring as a success. Other nations like Belgium, Turkey and Germany are following suit, promoting youth development as one of their core requirements but none have been as successful as Mexico.
The catalyst of change for Mexico’s was their under 17’s triumph in the 2005 youth World Cup. They realised that they already had talented youngsters but were not exploiting them and were suffering as a consequence. Football in Mexico had been grinding along for several years before in 2005, the Mexican FA decided that radical reform was needed to solve the disconnect between it club sides to its youth set up. For years, Mexican youth football was not professionalized so a lot of the best young talent simply fell out of the system and sometimes out of football all together.
The first task of the newly created sports development committee, formed in 2005, was to solve this problem and introduce new policies that would prevent Mexican football from sliding backwards. What they did was radical – they instructed each club that they needed to field a player under 21 years of age, for at least 45 minutes at a time, in every game throughout the season. They didn’t stop there, introducing two new youth leagues at under 17 and under 20 level that again needed to be funded and run by the senior teams. What this did was forced the clubs to make youth development a priority and invest heavily, even create youth teams in some cases.
The results are now evident to see with talent youngsters like Marco Fabien, Jonathan Dos Santos, Carlos Fierro and Marco Bueno all emerging in recent years and attracting the attention of the world’s best teams. Success at international level has been astonishing as well as the team develops together as a unit. In the two years leading up to 2013, Mexico’s youth teams dominated tournaments winning 10 out of a possible 13, including their Under 23 Olympic Gold at London 2012. Their performance in the final, where they blew away an impressive Brazil side with ease didn’t go unnoticed and now Mexico is firmly on every scouts radar, if it wasn’t already. As this team grows together and improves, who knows what they will achieve.