Ghana's U20 World Cup winners

*Just a note to say that I wrote this before tonight’s quarter-final defeat to Uruguay if the references to Ghana still being in the World Cup seem a little odd.

Following England’s limp exit from the World Cup much has been made of the relatively high average age (28.1) of Fabio Capello’s squad, with questions being asked as to the structure and effectiveness of youth football in this country and the manner in which young players are schooled in the game at the grass roots level.

As fingers continue to be pointed and blame assigned over England’s poor performances in South Africa, Ghana, the host continent’s sole remaining representative in the tournament, are giving many of the more established powers of world football a lesson in how to successfully promote and manage talented young footballers at the highest level.

The youngest team in the tournament, Ghana’s squad contains eight players aged 21 or under and has an average age fully four years below that of England. Milovan Rajevac, the Black Stars’ Serbian coach, has exceeded all expectations since his appointment in August 2008 and balanced the natural ability and enthusiasm of his players to create a coherent, disciplined and yet fluent team more than capable of succeeding on the world stage.

Already having won the U20 World Cup in 2009, reached the final of the Africa Cup of Nations back in January and now in the quarter-finals of what is only the country’s second appearance at a World Cup, the Ghanaians have clearly struck upon what is both a workable and fertile formula for youth production, but what is it that they are doing right?

Arguably the major reason behind the flourishing of Ghana’s young players has been that the top level of football in the country, the GLO Premier League, has become an arena for the finest Ghanaian youth players to hone their talents. This commitment to introducing young prospects to professional football has been engendered through a combination of both willingness and necessity. The conscious cultivation of talent for the national team has been reinforced by players being poached by European teams and the Ghanaian clubs’ inability to pay competitive wages, factors which make any model other than youth development all but unworkable.

This faith in young players is borne out by Aduana Stars, the 2009/10 GLO Premier League champions, who claimed their title with an average age of just 22.4, beating Ashanti Gold – average age 21.7 – into second place. Indeed, the player voted the division’s best player this year, Mahatma Otoo, is himself just 18 and yet is already the captain of Hearts of Oak, one of the league’s traditional powerhouses, a clear illustration of the high regard with which youth players are held in Ghana.

However, this commitment to youth football is nothing new. The country won the World U17 Championships in 1991 and ’95 and was honoured by FIFA for its work with young players in 2002. A year later the Goal committee approved plans and agreed to provide half of the funds for a technical centre based in Accra which has, since its completion, trained specialists in all areas of the game, carried out significant development work in both youth and women’s football and provided the country with a national academy.

The English FA’s proposed equivalent to such a centre, the much-maligned St George’s Park complex in Burton-upon-Trent, was only approved earlier this year after eight years of delays and is still little more than a building site.

Academies in Ghana are thriving

Andy Farrant, manager of the Right to Dream football academy in Accra believes that the key to Ghana’s success with youth football is a continuity of personnel and system at all levels within the national set-up:

“Many of the players currently at the World Cup played at U17 and U20 level, gaining valuable experience of international and, more specifically, tournament football. Players in the junior national teams are generally in camp for months on end and become used to playing together in the same system and style which is used by the senior side. This consistency really helps the players to thrive at international level.”

Farrant also sees a regional mentality that places far more importance on youth international football as vital to the process:

“The commitment from the Ghana Football Association to promote young players through the ranks of the junior national team regardless of their club commitments has also made an impact. The emphasis on junior internationals in Ghana and throughout West Africa is huge, similar to representing the team at the senior level”.

With these overriding policies and attitudes in place, the Black Stars have provided a sound template for youth development programmes around the world and the shining example that Ghana has given surely deserves far greater recognition than it currently receives. The country’s FA has demonstrated that careful planning and intelligent forward-thinking can bring about positive results in the long-term, something that their English counterparts have repeatedly disregarded in their rash attempts to throw money at deep-rooted problems in the hope of finding short-term solutions.

In light of the dismal recent performances of Capello’s team, the administrative bodies of Soho Square could do far worse than imitate elements of the Ghanaian mentality and model of football organisation at all levels as they re-assess their priorities in the coming months.