As England continue to agonise about the lack of top-class players coming through the system, and the national squad still looks short of the general vision and technique that minor footballing nations are now producing with relative frequency, the angst-fueled dialogue tends to turn to other models and systems, usually culminating in a focus on Spain.
This seems natural enough -- the senior side has won the past two European Championships, with a World Cup in between, whilst the under-21 side won European titles in 2011 and in 2013. The U19s made the semifinals this year, after winning the European Championship in both 2011 and 2012. Such dominance suggests that they must be doing something right, that they have worked out a developmental formula for their youth football that could set the template for any others that wish to copy it -- of course, if the model were so simple and straightforward, everyone could just import it and wait for the results to improve -- but the Spanish template, if it exists, seems to have encountered some basic incompatibilities with the English configuration.
Statistical comparisons may be odious, but it does look significant that whereas Spain has 12,720 UEFA "A" qualified coaches, England has only 1,161. That is a whopping difference. And at pro-licence level, England has 203 coaches compared to 2,140 in Spain. It's a purely quantitative argument, of course, and you might prefer to believe that in England the pool is smaller but of higher quality, but it's a theory that is difficult to prove.
The practical implications, however, are obvious. As in any educational system that requires teachers, the limited pool of qualified coaches in England results in fewer people being promoted into the ranks of instructors, which leads to fewer courses being available. The opposite is true of Spain, where the domino effect of a large pool of qualified coaches means that it is an exponential growth area. Also, in a country where unemployment has been an issue for a number of years now, football coaching is seen as a way into a job or work experience, however humble. There are also fewer legal impediments sewn into the system in Spain, which may not be an entirely good thing, but it does mean that a qualified coach stands a decent chance of work experience, whereas the common complaint in England is that it is almost impossible to gain experience at the basic levels, and that there is a reluctance to take people on because of the excessive bureaucracy and legal checks now involved.
Underneath the level of UEFA "B" level courses in Spain, it is still possible to pick up 150-hour sports monitor qualifications that will allow you to train kids' teams, for which there is massive demand. I have trained a youth team for three years in an international tournament here in the Basque Country, and nobody has asked me to show my qualification. It may seem like official neglect, but all you need is the parents' permission, and they give it gladly here. Does it help the system in general? I think it does.
The other thing about Spain is the sheer scale of its youth system, and the way that the dizzying amount of boys' (and girls') clubs at local level all feed inevitably into the nearest professional club, whose coaches and scouts will have been aware of the best players right down to '"Alevin" level (9 to 11 years) and who will have invited them to train with, and then to sign for, the local beacon team.
They will also have been competing, in eight-a-side leagues, from this age. This is not without controversy, because there are those who would prefer school sports to retain their best players until at least 13 or 14 years of age, but in general, the system seems to work. Here in the Gipuzcoa region of the Basque Country, the only region in Spain to not allow competitive football at this level, my son Harry was spotted at 11 and asked to occasionally train with Real Sociedad. He was allowed to play in specially organised tournaments, but not in a league structure. Nevertheless, he was given a medical and signed, but then put out to stud at one of the best local feeder teams, where Sociedad could keep an eye on him and where he could gain experience in a competitive league system.
All the games are played on excellent artificial pitches, right up to the age of 18, which encourages technique and passing. Little by little the top players are weaned off these surfaces onto grass, but the transition causes few problems.
At 15 he was spotted by scouts from an English Championship side and asked over for a week of trials. The team is now in the Premier League, but was then top of the second tier. He was treated well, and the facilities were fantastic -- certainly as good as in Spain -- but he was mystified by the training routines, which he found oddly basic, and the matches played among the squad players in which he was criticised by the coach for trying to build the play from the back with horizontal passes to the full-backs, when he had felt it was necessary.
In fact, everything he'd been taught in Spain as a midfielder -- to wait patiently for openings and then to switch directions and probe -- seemed to count for very little at this club. The English idea was to get the ball in quickly to the forwards, and that was about it.
He seemed, to my father's biased eyes, to be easily as good as the academy players he was competing with, but he wasn't taken on, possibly for not fitting the mould. It didn't matter, and it was a great experience, but the coaching he has received from part-time staff in Spain over the past six years has easily prepared him for professional football, if he wants to take it up. And although the sheer quality of the pool of players in his region means that he hasn't been signed by Real Sociedad, you only have to multiply my son by the other thousand or so at his level throughout Spain to see that the system will continue to produce enough elite players to stock the national side for years to come. Four of his club contemporaries played last week in the Champions League youth tournament for Sociedad, slaughtering Bayer Leverkusen's U19s 5-1 in Germany.
They pick up good habits here, and are simply never allowed to hoof the ball into never-never land. I see things on televised English matches that would never be permitted in Spain at youth level. Pace and physical build are important, but are not seen as crucial. And, of course, success breeds success. The short elaborate passing game, allied to the high-pressing midfield that has become associated with Barcelona and the Spanish national side, filters down to the younger kids.
The most admired player in Spain is the player who can "move between lines," the Cesc Fabregas/David Silva/Santi Cazorla type, cohorts of a "media-punta" revolution whose arch exponent is Andres Iniesta, a player who would simply have withered on the vine in the less imaginative English youth setup. In Spain they're springing up like mushrooms, and yet the English continue to work single production lines. Jack Wilshere is pretty good, but once you watch the real thing, made in Germany and improved in Spain (Mesut Ozil), you realise that England's single new hope still has a long way to go.
Of course, there are British coaches who have tried to turn back the tide -- Brendan Rodgers' work at Swansea, where all he was lacking was Lionel Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, was impressive, but the FA preferred the safe option in Roy Hodgson. It sends the wrong message. Innovate and you will be overlooked, unless you're Swedish.
The Spanish national team has dared to stick out its neck, after decades of underachievement, and the ranks below have responded. It takes the two elements to tango. Until England cast off their inbred conservatism, they'll continue to agonise, and plummet in the rankings.