Brent Latham: How Mexico became one of the best youth teams in the world

Mexico has quickly developed a consistently fearsome youth squad, with the FMF's influence crucial in changing the course of the country.
The Olympics have taken up much of the attention of El Tri fans over the last week, and rightly so. But overshadowed by the good start to the Olympic Games was yet another notable accomplishment for Mexican youth teams.

In Northern Ireland last week, Mexico’s U-20s lifted the prestigious Milk Cup for the first time in 12 years. Led by a handful of the stars from last year’s world champion U-17 team, the young Mexicans dominated an international field and came away with yet another title for El Tri.

Mexico thumped Turkey in the opener and then ran away from Denmark in the title game, sandwiched around a draw with Northern Ireland. The trophy goes in the pile alongside another won earlier in the month in a less prestigious tournament in Russia.

If this is news to you, don’t blame yourself. Mexico’s youth teams winning tournaments has become so commonplace of late that it’s almost not newsworthy anymore. But all this should come as little surprise. We all know that at the youth levels, Mexico is absolutely killing it.

The logical conclusion is that the country is suddenly swarming with abundant youth talent. That’s clear enough - though the argument that the talent has so suddenly emerged from nowhere is a bit precarious.

Mexico is, no doubt, a country replete with young soccer talent, perhaps more so than in the past. But the idea that somehow something changed in the water in the late 80s and early 90s to allow Mexican kids to grow into international quality superstars would need significantly more investigation.

So while there’s no doubt that youth talent is abundant in Mexico, it’s worthwhile to search for other factors in skyrocketing Mexican youth teams to unprecedented success over the last few years.

Many will point to the 2005 U-17 World Cup champs as evidence that Mexico has always performed well at the youth levels, but let’s not forget that just two years later, the U-17s failed to qualify for the World Cup. In 2009, the U-20s missed out, as did the Olympic team in between.

It was just that string of failures that led the FMF, in perhaps its wisest move of the last few decades, to look long and hard at youth development policies in the country.

There’s an obvious link between the establishment of serious U-17 and U-20 regimens for Mexico’s club teams and the recent international success at those levels. The Fed’s insistence on playing games at the youth levels before every league match coincided with an almost instant improvement in youth quality, as it forced teams to recognize and invest in Mexico’s young talent.

But a few years on, that move has proved to have had an even bigger effect than could have been hoped. The success of Mexico’s national youth teams has spurred club owners and boards of directors to take a new, more serious interest in youth development, for both sporting and economic reasons.

Where other federations can’t, or refuse to, get involved in club soccer matters, the bolder FMF provided the spark that has ignited a firestorm of development in Mexico.

Now the federation is taking things even further, by organizing tour after tour for its young teams. Already this cycle, the U-20s have traveled to Holland, Russia, the U.S. and Northern Ireland. The U-17s have gone to France, Costa Rica, Italy and Austria.

Alongside the national center for training and development in Mexico City, where youth teams come together year-round to practice at state of the art facilities, Mexico may now have the best funded and executed youth national team programs in the world, this side of Qatar at the very least.

Where other nations won’t begin their cycles until just before qualifying for age-group World Cups, Mexico’s teams will be well defined and playing as a unit when qualifying and World Cups come around. That gives El Tri an important leg up beyond their considerable talent, and so 2013 promises to be another banner year for Mexican youth teams.

It’s clear - there’s plenty of youth talent in Mexico. But it’s probably time to also recognize the role the FMF has played in giving that talent every chance to shine on the international level, by out-organizing just about every other federation in the world.