Careful examination of the opening title of this post reveals that is does not intend to call the current Dutch Under-17 squad a lost generation. Admittedly, they showed a disappointing performance in the current Under-17 World Cup, contested in Mexico. After an unexpected loss against Congo, a match during which the players’ hotel was robbed too, the young side never fully recovered. A draw against a very defensive North Korean side left a glimmer of hope of qualification from the group stages, but the 3-2 loss against home nation Mexico meant elimination at the group stages for the recently crowned European Champions.
The lost generation
No, this post focuses on the true lost generation: the vast amount of players that had the inherent talent to succeed in professional football at an early age, but did not make the selection for this under-17 team. Players that did so not by their own lack of talent, but by the workings of a biased selection system throughout the youth academies from an early age on. And this bias, as will become clear later on in this article, does not seem to be limited to our small nation, but rather a worldwide neglect of potential football talent.
The Matthew effect
The current article is triggered by the first chapter of a brilliant book, called ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell. In this book the author focuses on how we tend to look at people around us that are capable of things that others are not: outliers. These outliers could be either talented musicians, academics, business men, lawyers, or indeed, world class athletes. Regarding the latter category, a truly insightful piece of information is derived from a simple study of the birth dates of Canadian junior hockey players.
The vast majority of these talented youngsters is shown to be born in the early months of the year, signifying a selection bias towards these players somewhere during the process of developing these young talents. Otherwise you’d have expected players’ birth dates to be roughly equally distributed among all 12 months of the year.
As an explanation of this odd distribution, the so called ‘Matthew effect’ is explained and I will provide a short summary of this theory. It implies that at an early age the pool of talented youngster is divided roughly in to two groups: those who we believe may make it on a top level and those who we believe won’t make it there. The first group is provided with extra training, extra matches, is clustered to train with better peers, hence faces better opposition and is provided with more skilled coaching. So these two group diverge during their development and an example of a player crossing over from the latter category of the deemed ‘untalented’ group to the ‘gifted’ group seems hard to find.
So it essential for a young kid who has the inherent talent to succeed in professional football to make the cut for the ‘gifted’ group, otherwise, without the extra attention and the opportunity to work with equally gifted peers and coaches, his skills set will go to waste. And on what basis is the decision made whether or not to include a talent in the ‘gifted’ group or not? His performances on the pitch during the early stages of his development, say ages 6 to 10.
At these young ages, an age difference of six months can bear a huge influence. Being born earlier in the year provides a competitive edge over your rivals in terms of physical, neurological and mental development. And, as youth selections are based on the year a player is born, talents born in early January have rivals that are on average half a year younger, while the reverse is true for players born at the end of December. This explains why the vast majority of players in youth selections is born in the early months of the year, but it also implies a waste of the talent that is present among players born in the second half of the year.
The Dutch Under-17 squad
Teams at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup consisted of a selection of 21 players. In the Dutch squad, four players were born in January, seven in February, four in March and the remaining six in the other nine months of the year. Over 70% of players were born during the first three months of the year. In fact, only two players were born in the second half of the year: Menno Koch (July 2, 1994) and Karim Rekik (December 2, 1994).
A quick scan through the selections of the other nations confirms that this is not just a Dutch phenomenon. The average amount of players born in the first half of the year for European nations was 76%. For Australia, South America, North America and Asia, these figures were 74%, 70%, 68% and 64% respectively. The average fraction of players born during the first three months of the year for all these continents was above 40%. In Africa a reverse pattern seemed to hold true with on average over 40% of players born in the final three months of the year.
So what do these patterns signify?
The odd distribution of birth dates among players selected for the recent Under-17 World Cup implies an impressive waste of inherent football talents. With the assumptions that inherently talented players are roughly conceived year round, these data show that only a fraction of them succeed in making it to the top and these generally are the players born in the first few months of the year.
Interestingly, there were some nations with either the reverse pattern of more players born in the second half of the year (Ivory Coast 71%, Rwanda 86%) and some nations with roughly equal distribution of birth dates (Congo, Jamaica, Panama, Burkina Faso). This implies a different selection process compared to the other nations, where at least for the Dutch situation I can confirm the fact that players are grouped according to their year of birth.
A potential competitive edge
Would any nation recognize this odd pattern and succeed in transforming their youth coaching and selection system to an approach that eliminates the advantage given to players based on the months in which they were born? This would mean an enormous competitive advantage compared to rival nations that stick to this system and in fact are fishing for talent in a very limited part of the pool available to them.