An International Comparative History of Youth Football in France and the United States (C.1920-C.2000): The Age Paradigm and the Demarcation of the Youth Game as a Separate Sector of the Sport




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De Montfort University


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Peer reviewed


This thesis contends that the contemporary phenomenon of youth football is the fruit of a variety of historical developments over the twentieth century. The manner in which the junior game evolved as an independent subset of the sport in France and America was certainly exemplary of the idiosyncrasies of national sporting culture, football in particular, the general timeline of each country as well as the place of ‘youth’ in wider society. The present study aims to expand the understanding of the game of football, specifically the youth sector, through a transnational line of enquiry covering the period from circa 1920 to circa 2000. The thesis structure is broadly thematic and chronological. This comparative approach attempts to remain coherent across both countries with a goal of outlining the core issues and major shifts which occurred over the chosen period.

Youth football underwent a process of demarcation from the adult or elite game but maintained and furthered specific mechanisms linking the two across sporting, educational, and professional bridges. With the decade of the 1970s serving as a turning point, the youth level achieved a sort of independence while being inextricably fused to the top level. The essence of the growing separation of the youth from the senior level rested on the fundamental notion of ‘age’ as opposed to ‘ability’. The organisation of football around this concept of ‘age’, and the resulting limitation of participation, provided a basis for ‘junior’ football as a distinct entity by the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Subsequent divisions extended the differences between age categories and created a full competitive youth spectrum for younger and younger players. The game was, as a result, “juvenilized”. The registration of players and the competitions for which this registration was so important reflected the relevance of ‘age’. Throughout this process, though in different ways and at different speeds in the two countries studied, the youth game was drawn away from its roots in the school and as a pillar of the world of education. After the initial interwar and post-war eras, youth football moved toward the worlds of the club and association.

This specialisation of the game was also evident in the rules and the equipment, all of which were progressively adapted for a more pedagogically correct, and perhaps commercially oriented, fit. While the youth game separated from the adult footballing world through age classification, distinct competitive spaces, adapted rules and equipment, that expanding gulf was continually bridged in various ways in order to maintain, develop, and create new links between these two increasingly distinct sectors of the sport. The link with the elite and the professional levels was certainly not new, but from the 1970s onwards it was solidified over time and the relationship grew closer as education moved farther away or, at the least, took a back seat to ‘professional training’.

By the close of the twentieth century, this ultimately placed the youth game as distinct from the adult game. Yet, somewhat contradictorily, it was closer than ever to the elite professional domain. As subject to international, professional and commercial forces, the youth game was fused to elite football. These three forces pulled youth football away from their uniquely national idioms and towards a more globalized arena. Harmonizing the experience across national boundaries, a blend of educational, sporting and professional bridges ensured and furthered the connection between the youth and the adult elite player. From the late nineteenth century’s amateur world view – where football and sport were idealized as a means for development of the human being or the vehicle for the transmission of elite social values – the effects of professionalization turned football into an end in itself as a legitimate career. From child’s play to a real métier. By the end of the twentieth century, the youth game stood confidently with one foot in each world.



History, Youth, Child, Childhood, football, Soccer, Junior(s), Schoolboy(s), Age, Ethnicity/Ethnic history



Research Institute