This summer, German youth national team manager Horst Hrubesch conquered Europe with a talent-laden U-21 squad of Bundesliga regulars. This tournament will be different.
What a difference a few months, and a birth year, make!
During the recent Bundesliga offseason, Germany's Under-21 national side became champions of Europe, winning the continental championship tourney thanks to a host of young players already making an impact at their club teams.
Now that the Bundesliga is in full swing, German clubs have gone tight-fisted. Coach Horst Hrubesch is headed to Egypt for the Under-20 World Cup with just 18 rather than the maximum permitted 21 players on his roster, having had his requests for another 25 players turned down.
“To take part in a World Cup is a career highlight for any player,” said Hrubesch, a former striker who won a European Cup with Hamburg. “It's a shame that these talented kids can't take advantage of the opportunity.”
Hrubesch doesn't have much choice, however. Under FIFA rules clubs are not required to free up players for youth internationals, as they are for full senior international matches,.
In the last two U-20 World Cups, held in 2005 and 2007, that wasn't much of a problem, as the tournament was held in the summer. This time, with clubs loath to give up any player who's even made the substitutes' bench in the present season, the squads are bound to be thin.
The disagreement is one about whose needs are to be put first when soccer's world agenda is set.
FIFA, as the sport's world governing body, naturally sees itself at the head of the table. But the big money and big, worldwide fan base of the European club game means big influence. Therefore, FIFA tries to reassert its dominance from time to time.
“One can't always set things up for the benefit of the Europeans,” FIFA President Sepp Blatter said, explaining moves like scheduling the U-20 World Cup during the club season in Europe.
It was FIFA's wish to award the tournament to Egypt, and that country is far too hot in summer for international football. If European clubs refuse to release players, then various national teams (principally European ones) will have to suffer the consequences of fielding weakened sides.
U-20 World Cups are of little interest to most fans, so it's unlikely much pressure will be brought to bear to change the situation.
But the tournament has acted as a springboard for stars to come. Future German internationals like Matthias Sammer, Andreas Moeller, and Michael Preetz had their debuts on the international stage at past editions of the tournament, and Argentina's Lionel Messi was the tourney's top scorer in 2005.
It's not without reason, then, that representatives of the club game are crying foul.
Christian Seifert, the board chairman of the German Football League, believes it's a sign of how "divorced from reality" FIFA has become that they would “hold a U-20 World cup during the club season – and even worse – put on a U-17 World Cup in a politically unstable region like Nigeria.”
That tournament is set for October and November of this year and has been plagued by delays in preparations, as well as threats from rebel groups based in the Niger Delta. Some participating countries have already expressed concerns for their young players' safety.
The U-20 World Cup in Egypt begins on Friday, with Germany's campaign starting on Saturday against the United States. Its other group opponents are South Korea and Cameroon.
Editor: Michael Lawton