England flies on wings of youth
THE great youth debate has settled upon England, the oldest nation in soccer.
With the notable exception of Michael Owen - who, in 1998, became its youngest tournament goal scorer at 18 - England has believed that football is a job for mature men.
Now, however, it has thrown reluctance to the wind and gone for six players aged 22 or younger for this World Cup.
Left-back Luke Shaw, 18, is the baby of the pack and will get game time only if Leighton Baines, 29, the senior man in his position, gets injured or needs replacing through fatigue.
Raheem Sterling, the 19-year-old Liverpool forward who has the pace to play on the wing and guile to dart through the middle, is considered by many to be an essential attacking player for England - although a red card for a reckless tackle against Ecuador in a friendly in Miami last week suggested the impetuosity of youth carries its risks.
In the same game, Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was England's most dynamic counter-attacker until he suffered a knee injury in a jarring challenge. It appears to be touch-and-go whether he can recover in time for the World Cup, but England is taking him to Brazil and will work on him until the last possible moment.
Oxlade-Chamberlain is considered almost an irreplaceable English talent at 20. He has youth, vigour, belief and a big-game temperament already proved in the Champions League for Arsenal. His club teammate, Jack Wilshere, is not much older (he's 22) but has battled through recurring ankle injuries to claim a place on the national roster.
That place - indeed, the senior role of Wayne Rooney, 28, as a link between midfield and attack - is under serious challenge from another rising star, Everton's 20-year-old Ross Barkley.
Barkley's career progression was hampered by injury when he suffered a broken leg in his teens. But in his comeback season and in England's warm-up matches for the World Cup, he has lived up to claims that he has the moves that can unlock tight defences, either to strike for goal or to create for others.
"He's a phenomenal talent," Barkley's team manager at Everton, Roberto Martinez, told reporters during the Premier League season. "Ross is the best English talent I've worked with. We need to give him good care and support him to fulfil his potential, because he's going to be terrific news for Everton and English football. If he is called upon, he'll be ready."
In the games en route to Brazil, England has seen periods of dazzling absence of inhibition from its youth. To see Barkley run and weave with the ball, or watch Wilshere and Sterling deceive opponents by dodging the path of the ball altogether, is a welcome sight.
"The reason I've chosen the young players - and I've said this to them - is that you're here on merit," said Roy Hodgson, the veteran England team manager. "I didn't choose you because you're enjoying a moment of fame and you're getting good reviews in the press," he added. "I've chosen you because I think you've got the ability to be top-class players."
Hodgson's reputation is that of a cautious manager, tactically at least, and he knows that the group England has drawn - starting tomorrow against Italy in Manaus, and including Uruguay and Costa Rica - will test every nerve and sinew he can call upon.
The coach is not picking youth for the sake of it. Most commentators are predicting that Hodgson will start with experience against Italy tomorrow and bring on the young players only when both sides start wilting in the heat.
In any case, Hodgson said only that he has not picked players according to date of birth. "A player of his type," he said of Barkley, "has the confidence and is prepared to take an awful lot of risks with the ball. But he's not here to learn; he's here to play."