By the time the knockout stages for the Under-17 World Cup commence next week, its two highest-profile players will not be playing.
Jadon Sancho, the England winger who moved from Manchester City to Borussia Dortmund in August for £8m, was allowed to join his national team-mates in India only on the condition that he return to Germany after the group stage. Vinícius Júnior, signed by Real Madrid from Flamengo for an eye-watering £39.6m in the summer before being loaned back to the Brazilian club, was not granted permission to travel to the tournament at all.
Although this may leave England and Brazil weakened and take some of the gloss off the Fifa tournament, it is positive for the development of these players. First-team action at club level is the holy grail for anyone making their way through an academy, and for Sancho in particular, this is exactly why he left Manchester City: Dortmund offered less in wages but more opportunity and a tangible pathway into the first team. Sancho needed only look at the recent careers of Christian Pulisic, Julian Weigl and Alexander Isak – among others – to see that Dortmund keep their word if the talent is there.
Sancho has yet to make his debut for the German club, partly because of a delay in his registration with the Bundesliga, partly because Dortmund are a world-class team with a wealth of talent at their disposal, but mostly because he is a 17-year-old who has moved to another country with another language and without the safety net of support that most teenagers enjoy at that age.
But he is on the verge. When he signed, Dortmund’s sporting director, Michael Zorc, labelled him “one of the greatest talents in European football” before handing him the No7 shirt vacated by Ousmane Dembélé. In Dortmund’s last game he was named as unused substitute. With Dortmund about to take on a punishing schedule that includes seven games in three weeks after suffering a spate of injuries on Sancho’s preferred left flank – Marco Reus, André Schürrle, Raphaël Guerreiro and Marcel Schmelzer are sidelined – his first-team debut under Peter Bosz seems imminent.
The timing of Sancho’s recall from England looks promising, and his form at the Under-17 World Cup will not have harmed his Dortmund chances. He provided one goal and two assists in the 3-2 win over Mexico on Wednesday to go with the two goals and one assist in the 4-0 win over Chile in the opening match on Sunday. One assist in particular was stunning, cutting in from the left touchline past two Mexico defenders before an inch-perfect pass to his former City team-mate Phil Foden, who brilliantly curled the ball into the corner from the edge of the area.
Steve Cooper, England’s Under-17 head coach, perhaps understandably wants to steer the conversation away from individual performances as as he prepares for the final group game, against Iraq on Saturday, which will decide who wins Group F.
“Jadon is with us for the third group game and we can’t look much further past that,” Cooper says. “We’ve obviously qualified [for the last 16] but we can’t look past the Iraq match. I don’t know the ins and outs of why Jadon has to go back; [the FA’s technical director] Dan Ashworth is dealing with that. My focus is on the World Cup plan.
“I’m going to be boring but we’re very much about the team. One of our ‘controlables’ – as we call them – is team togetherness. It’s easy to see lads score goals and make blocks on the edge of the box but you’ll hear the national coaches talking about national identity – Gareth [Southgate] gets quoted quite a lot about that. Once they come through the doors of St George’s Park, we’re very clear about how we want them to train, prepare, play, take responsibility, behave, represent us.”
Taking responsibility on and off the pitch is a big thing for Cooper. “I am encouraging the players to take ownership, ask the players’ opinion on things: gameplans, opposition analysis, game reviews. So we’ll sit down with the players on Thursday and watch the match and they’ll be telling us what they thought, and how they can get better, and then we’ll facilitate that.
“These are elite players and their understanding of what they need and what they want is quite high. As long as they understand the aims and objectives for each game, we are asking players to take the lead, trying to help them fit into the England DNA. At the end we want players to become senior players and to show leadership and responsibility.”
Against Mexico this was most evident in England’s No9, Rhian Brewster. The Liverpool striker missed an open goal after six minutes. It was the kind of miss that could shatter a young player’s confidence, especially one who had not yet scored in the tournament. Yet when Mexico conceded a free-kick 25 yards out just before half-time, it was Brewster who put the ball down with authority, curling a beautiful shot over the wall and into the top corner to give England the lead.
Brewster is another starting to make an impression on the first team at club level after making a move. He left Chelsea in 2015 “because I didn’t see a pathway to become a first-team player there” and has made huge strides at Liverpool in recent months, so much so that he did not have a match-day suit when he was named on the substitutes’ bench for the trip to Crystal Palace in April.
It has been an unprecedented year for England’s youth teams: the under-17s lost on penalties in the final of the Euros in May (Sancho was named the tournament’s best player), the under-19s won the Euros in July, the under-20s won the World Cup in June and the under-21s reached the semi-final of the Euros in June. Cooper’s side have a chance to add another World Cup in India, and even without Sancho, it appears they have the talent and the mentality to succeed. Beyond the World Cup, each player needs to consider carefully their path to first-team football if they want to have a hope of senior international football.
It is easy to forget how young Brewster, Sancho and Vinícius are, but they believe they are good enough to compete with the best in the Premier League, Bundesliga and beyond. They just need a stage; for now the Under-17 World Cup will have to do.
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