In this section of Youth Football Scotland, we will look at how nations from around the footballing world, both major and minor, have approached the development of their youth systems. We will see how different countries put a different emphasis on their youth set ups and how they relate to the countries game in general.
Series editor Alan Evans and his team of writers looks at the ideas and strategies implemented throughout the world on how best to develop young footballers at all levels of the game. This should not be seen as a critique on the Scottish system, nor a way of suggesting how things should be done differently by the SFA. This is simply about exploring the different ideas that suit each nation individually.
Sven Houston reports...
In October 1993, Norway found themselves second only to Brazil in the FIFA ranking after defying experts and fans alike by topping a World Cup qualifying group containing both Holland and England. It was testament to their transformation during the 90s, a period in which they qualified for three major tournaments. The highlight, as most Norwegians will tell you, came in the summer of '98 when midfield dynamo Kjetil Rekdal converted an 89th minute penalty to stun Brazil with a 2-1win in the final group stage match of the World Cup, securing a place in the last 16. The 90's player generation, however, came to its inevitable end and Norway have spent the last ten years without a major tournament to their name. The drought may end next year, however, as they currently top their Euro qualifying group. A period of re-building and re-investment in their nationwide youth development seems to be finally paying dividends.
Norway's success during the 90s, driven primarily by enigmatic coach Egil 'Drillo' Olsen (pictured, above) opened the floodgates to the Norwegian transfer market. Scouts were arriving by the bus load to cast their eye on the untapped and, more importantly, inexpensive Norwegian talent. It had started with goalkeeping giant Erik Thorstvedt's move to Spurs in 1989 and the next decade would see a flurry of players follow suit. The stand-out export was the super-sub himself, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. His injury time winner for Manchester United during the 1999 Champions League final earned him a place in Old Trafford folklore, and only served to strengthen the stellar reputation of Norwegian players: fit, talented and, by comparison to their British team mates, virtually teetotal. As the 90’s drew to a close, however, so did the on-field success. Changes at the very bottom were required in order to re-start the conveyor belt of talent and repeat the success of the 1990s.
Unlike established footballing nations such as Holland and Spain, Norway doesn't operate large-scale football academies. Instead, the NFF (Norwegian Football Federation) established a plan whereby responsibility is handed down to each individual club. The Norwegian system doesn't incorporate school football teams, with each town instead having several clubs which are open to anyone willing to play. Youngsters are encouraged to enter the game at a young age, with the primary focus directed towards the development of both football and social skills. The 'open door policy' present at every club has subsequently resulted in a vast number of female players, with a recent report revealing that over 100,000 girls of all ages are registered with clubs. The investment in the female game has paid huge dividends, as the national side has been firmly established as one of the best in the world since the 1990s.
Norway’s geographical location means some parts of the country are covered in snow for all but the summer months, prompting large scale investment in football facilities. Since 2005 there have been approximately 100 new artificial pitches built annually, allowing outdoor football all year round. In addition there have been over 15 indoor arenas built on average since 2005, thus providing high-tech facilities in which to develop players.The success of these facilities has been so successful that top division side Stabaek FK built a new fully fledged indoor stadium (pictured, left), thus playing under a roof all year round.
One of the NFF's key policies is implemented once players reach the age of 13, when they make the transition into playing 11-a-side football. Teams are then formed based on ability, and those deemed to have exceptional qualities are sidetracked into the nationwide pyramid scheme which forms the basis of the country's youth structure. The pyramid consists of three main 'zones': local, regional and national. Players aged 13 or over may be selected at a local level for so-called 'town-teams' in which the best players from each town or city are gathered a couple of teams a week for specialized training. The process is overseen by highly qualified regional coaches whom begin to implement intensive individual training in addition to raising tactical awareness and understanding.
From this stage on-ward the progress depends on each player's development, and can see them move on to regional teams before progressing to representing their country at youth level. International sides, both male and female, cater for players aged 15 and up and are used not only to develop the best players, but to give the NFF an insight into how they compare to other European countries through participating in international tournaments.
Despite the insistence of forming elite groups of players, the NFF does recognize that youngsters develop at differing rates. The objective therefore is to ensure that those who aren't initially selected for regional teams still remain within the game, and receive the highest possible level of coaching in order to increase the chances of so-called 'late bloomers'. A current example of this method is recent Celtic target Erik Huseklepp, who didn't turn professional until the age of 21, having spent several seasons playing lower league football. Having failed to stand out at a younger age, he benefited from the time and support he was given and is now a fully-fledged international striker.
Like any smaller footballing nation, however, Norwegian clubs struggle to keep their best prospects. Foreign clubs are aware of the young Norwegian talent pools, meaning players as young as 13 are frequently signed up by foreign teams. As a result many of the country's hottest prospects are being developed abroad. Manchester City, Manchester United, Rangers and Everton have all signed up teenage players from Norwegian clubs. Whilst they may be offered world class coaching abroad, the opportunity for first team football disappears when thrown into large, multi-national clubs. It is an issue which the NFF is trying to address, having already implemented rules which require each 25-man squad to have two players who have been developed by the club. The idea is for this number to increase year by year in order for clubs to become dependent on their youngsters, and thus less likely to release them at the mere sight of a European side’s cheque book.
The investment in the youth structure also requires high levels of coaching, which is reflected in the number of young Norwegian managers currently emerging. StaaleSolbakken is the most prominent; he is in the middle of a successful Champions League campaign with Danish champions FC Copenhagen and thus building a strong reputation within the game. Other ex-players have also returned home after their retirement in order to gain managerial experience, with the latest being Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (pictured above right, scoring his most famous goal) who took on his first managerial job with Molde FK in January 2011.
The Norwegian development model is still very much a work in progress, but with the continued investment in infrastructure and coaching, it seems inevitable that youngsters will continue to be in high demand across Europe for the foreseeable future.