Vieira’s damning assessment came 24 hours after the Football Association opened its £105 million national football centre at St George’s Park in Burton. The former Arsenal captain speaks from a position of experience.
Since 2003 he has been heavily involved in youth development, having set up
his own academy in Senegal. Now a senior
“For a big country like
“If you have a group of 20 really talented players at eight years of age, if you don’t get five involved in the first team that means we have done something wrong and not coached them the way we were supposed to.
“When you have a good nine-year-old, you have to improve that talent year after year. You get to the point where he is not good enough, you have to ask how come you lost him. It means the system is wrong.”
And for Vieira, the Burton-on-Trent facility will be no quick fix, pointing to the long-term visions of both France with its Clairefontaine centre and Spain with the Ciudad del Fútbol.
“With Clairefontaine producing someone like Thierry Henry, it took about 10 years,” said Vieira, speaking as an ambassador for Western Union’s new PASS initiative for promoting football in schools.
“But when you believe in a project you have to give yourself time. Everyone is talking about Spain now but Barcelona have been working on this for the last 30 years. You have to be patient. You may see the first players coming through in the next 10 years.”
The 36 year-old believes the wealth and competitiveness of the Premier League may paradoxically also have mitigated against developing England stars. Too often Premier League clubs have turned to ready-made talent from abroad without having the courage to use English-born youngsters.
The FA abandoned its centre of excellence at Lilleshall in 1999, under Howard Wilkinson’s charter for quality – described yesterday by Michael Owen as a “sad day” for him and his fellow graduates. It meant there has been no outlet for high-quality competition between the nation’s most promising players, although Vieira sees the new Elite Player Performance Plan and it’s Under-21 league as an important step towards improving matters.
“The big problem in this country is losing a lot of players from the age of 18 to 21 because the games programme was not good enough,” he said. “What’s happening here is really important, especially with the Under 21 league. It will be very important for developing English players in the future. The people running the English game realised they are far behind other countries, that something is wrong in the system, and they are trying to make it work.”
Vieira does see cause for hope, and identifies the qualities that are visceral to Englishmen as being the raw materials for resurgence. But only if a proper education can harness them.
“I believe in this country there is a passion and a love of the game – that is a strength in this country,” he said. “England should base the training on that.
“So perhaps more work needs to be done on the tactical or the technical work to try to improve that gap because the heart of the English players is, I would say, double or triple that of Spanish or French players. That is a good base to start with.”