The Swedish U21 national team surprised all of Europe by winning this summer’s U21 European Championship in the Czech Republic. The victorious campaign came just 18 months after the U17 national team also surpassed expectations by winning the Bronze medal in the U17 World Cup in 2013. Clearly, the Swedish youth national teams have improved over the last few years. An important step in these players’ development as footballer’s is the District teams most players have been involved in. These teams compete against other districts from all over the country at National camps and a National cup competition which provides a great opportunity for players to come up against players of a similar level from across the country. For the national team coaches it also provides a terrific opportunity to scout the quality in the country and the first national team squad, when the players are 15-years-old, is picked in connection with one of the national camps.
As a coach of one of these district teams, as well as a former player, I got a unique insight into how it works.
Last year I was appointed as one of two coaches of Norrbotten’s district team for players born in 2000. Norrbotten is the most northern district in the country and one of the smaller in terms of the total number of players active. A great challenge awaited me and my colleague. We immediately set up regional camps where we looked at a total of 150 players to start with, then 70, followed by 40 before we settled on a group of 30 for a few months. In late May, we went to our first national camp with 18 players including two goalkeepers. A month later, at the end of June, we went to the national camp in Halmstad where all of Sweden’s 24 districts are present. The squads at this point contain 14 outfield-players and two goalkeepers.
Before I go into greater detail on the camp itself, you need some information on the entire set-up. Sweden is divided into 24 districts as mentioned above, spanning the entire country from Skåne in the south to Norrbotten in the north. Three regional camps are first arranged at three different locations with eight district present at each of them. This might differ from year to year because of the long distances to travel which means one camp can have seven and another nine districts present. In June every year, all districts travel to Halmstad for the national camp known as Elitlägret. Elitlägret has taken place in Halmstad for nearly 50 years, and the camp area is terrific with 14 pitches in perfect condition.
The teams include 16 players where you are forced to bring two goalkeepers and all live in classrooms at a high-school in Halmstad. All teams eat in the same cafeteria too, and living so close together for a week is sure to bring new friendships to life.
The week starts with the teams arriving on the Sunday and immediately going for a training session observed by national team coaches. On the Monday the first round of games are being played. Beforehand, the teams are being divided into six groups where the districts should all be of a similar level to guarantee tight and competitive matches to enhance the players development. Games are being played at four pitches, which give the teams waiting to play or those that played the early fixtures, a chance to watch other districts.
On the Tuesday, another two training sessions take place followed by a game on the Wednesday and an additional two training sessions on the Thursday. All training session has a pre-decided theme, decided by the Swedish FA, and the sessions are being delivered by the district teams coaches. National team coaches are still present, both to watch the players in action as well as the coaches. An education for the coaches has been introduced in the last few years, something which has been very popular and that I personally found very rewarding.
The camp concludes on the Friday with the third game of the week. The opposition in this game isn’t decided beforehand as in the other two, but is instead based on performances in the first two games. Important word to highlight here is performances, and not results.
After the Elitlägrets conclusion, the national team manager for the age group picks 44 players for his first national team squad. Also, the Swedish FA has followed Belgium and introduced Future Team, which is made up of players that has shown promise and quality, but who might lack a little physically as they might be late into puberty to take one example. The number of players picked for the Future Team isn’t set in stone, but could be between 30 and 40 players. I think this is a great idea, as it basically gives twice as many players than previously a chance to play for the national team.
There is obviously positives and negatives with this system. There is by no means a guarantee to become a professional footballer just because you attend Elitlägret. For example, two of Sweden’s most famous footballers in Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic wasn’t selected for their district teams for different reasons. As each district only can bring 16 players, it means a lot of players will miss out on the camp. Some players might be talented but will miss out because of the way their district coach wants to play. So the system is obviously not perfect, but I doubt any system is or even could be.
The positives definitely outweighs the negatives for me. As I’m from one of the smaller districts where tough and competitive matches is a major problem, it’s a great chance for our players to test themselves against the best from the rest of the country. It’s a great inspiration for them, and also for us as coaches. They will take the experience with them for the rest of their lives, and hopefully they will bring what they’ve learned with them back to their clubs to improve not only themselves, but also their teammates who would want to reach the level to be in the district team themselves. In the victorious U21 national team, most of the players attended Elitlägret and just look what they went on to achieve.
Written by @DaveSelini