Football has changed a lot in the past century, with so many changes brought on and off the pitch, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to think that it has failed to even maintain its reflection of what it was started as, or maybe it has succeeded. With the current climate around the globe, caring more about the monetary side of things instead of global warming, it is a safe deduction that money has ultimately taken the place where a soul of a club would generally be, where it should be.
Clubs like PSG, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Manchester United have been paying enormous transfer fees in an attempt to maintain their dominance, although not always with success. Many clubs have strayed away from the ethics and core values on what they were built on, the reason they garnered fans and love in the game. Be it the way they play, the way they did their business, the way they played the talent they helped develop in their system, or whatever reason that may be relevant. Fans crave success, which means the backroom hierarchy would be more focused on the results on the pitch, and how it affects their off-the-pitch associations.
It is rare nowadays for clubs to have managers for more than three years in charge on average, the managerial turnover has been so frequent, it has started to develop a separate transfer market for managers alongside the already existing player transfer market. Money has made everything expendable and put a price on things that, at one point of time, would be considered invaluable to a club, manager or player. That has led to a disastrous effect on how the youth academies and players have been run and treated lately.
Clubs in the lower division in England, the likes of Exeter City, Crewe Alexandra, Coventry City, Sunderland among others have survived as a club through difficult times by depending on their young stars to bulk up their squad on the football side, and on the transfer fees to manage and maintain the financial side of the club. And it’s not just the lower league clubs who would usually rely on youth development, Manchester United, Arsenal, Southampton, West Ham United from England, with clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, Paris Saint-Germain, AS Monaco, Olympique Lyonnais, among others in France, and clubs from different countries like RB Salzburg, Anderlecht, Santos, River Plate, Genk, Dinamo Zagreb, Ajax and many more are among the few globally renowned clubs who are openly and romantically associated with youth development.
The nature of the game and the necessity to have the brightest prospects at one’s own club has led to the perversion and cheapening of what the academies were meant to be for those young prospects. With so much exposure and coverage, every corner of the world can be monitored by anyone who has the means and resources to do so, many governments do. So, clubs can keep tabs on every up and coming player irrespective of where he/she may live or which league or club he/she plays for. And once that player starts to make a name for themselves, clubs start to make a queue to sign him/her to their academy or first team in a bid to further their development and accelerate it, to ensure that if they reach the potential everyone claims he/she can, then the fee to sign them as a finished product would be astronomical if not exponential.
They’re being traded like shares, stocks and bonds, an investment, who they patiently wait for to pay off the costs incurred, and in case he/she doesn’t make it, they’re moved on quicker than they were brought in. The damage that type of behaviour can do to a young player is beyond the ability to put it into any sort of metric, as they are ridiculed and only remembered for the failure that he/she has undergone by not fulfilling their potential, when they didn’t even get a say in the bar that was being set for them. The level of degradation to the way they’re treated is appalling and always understated due to the cutthroat nature of the world has become today. The judging of a player’s potential may not always be accurate, as no one can claim to know the variety of things that need to be factored in, to give an accurate judgement of his/her potential.
The clubs and their affiliations with their academies
We’ve mentioned that there are clubs who have strayed away from their core values as a football club towards money. Two of the most notable examples would be Barcelona and until recently, Manchester United. There are many other clubs, with the likes of West Ham, Arsenal, PSG among others who have wasted the use of their youth system, as their graduates go on to achieve success at different clubs when denied the opportunity in the club’s first team.
Both FC Barcelona and Manchester United have arguably one of the world’s best youth systems, as they can attract the best talent to their set-up due to their history of producing and integrating their graduates into the first team, as many have gone onto enjoy success with the club’s first team. Both the sides have arguably produced two of the finest generation of talents through their system, with United’s class of ’92 producing David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs are the most recognisable stars from that generation, as all of them were a part of the 1999 treble-winning side after they were integrated into the team as youngsters. Guardiola’s 2008-2012 side have been touted as one of the best-ever club sides with the likes of Lionel Messi, Pedro, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Pique (came back to FC Barcelona after a season at Manchester United), Puyol, Valdes and others were all graduates of the acclaimed La Masia.
United under Sir Alex Ferguson, and Barcelona under Pep, had integrated many young players from the academy into the first team who would go on to be some of the best players of their time. Particularly Sir Alex, as he had rebuilt his side more than once in his 27 years in charge of United. Both the clubs have wastefully utilised their academies ever since the two managers left the two clubs, and united have recently started finding their way back under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, while Barcelona still wait for the manager who can bring back the ways they were once revered for.
While Barcelona and United harbor the somewhat failed image of the youth system and how it should be utilised to the best way possible. Clubs like Ajax, Southampton, Dinamo Zagreb, Lyon, SL Benfica, Atalanta among others are the perfect examples of how youth players and system can be a golden duck, as their players are often plucked by the ‘super clubs’, when they come of age, and are regarded as one of the best in the league, or on the continent. All of the clubs mentioned above instil the ethics and values that are required not just as a footballer, but as a human being as well, as their players are some of the most well-mannered and respected individuals wherever they go.
There are clubs who use the youth system, just as a means to balance the financial side of the club, with Brentford (they indulge in their youth system as well as smart bargain transfers to develop young players), FC Porto and Sporting among others, as they look to keep the club running without engaging into huge debt mountains. Many lower league English clubs follow the same approach, as they battle bankruptcy and administration in their bid to survive in the football league and maintain their history that they’ve built up over the years.
South America has long been one of the best production lines on the global stage, with countries like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile unearthing some of the best-ever players in their positions if not of all time. With Brazil harbouring some of the most successful clubs on the continent, it doesn’t take much to figure out as to why South Americans are always in demand by any club. The streets and futsal across every corner helping the kids hone their skill set, their flair and awe-inspiring skills are always a key-criteria why Brazilians are so adored around the globe. But the players coming out of the South American continent are equal parts a masterstroke, and equal parts a bad decision, as their unproven talent does end up costing a lot of money to anyone looking to make a gamble, even after rigorous analysis and scouting.
In the past few years, the route to Europe has been divided into two ways, one going through Liga NOS, the other going through MLS, as both the leagues are pro-development and provide the platform to young players to provide some much-needed calibre to their potential, as it helps them to properly narrow down the development plans for them, and also provides the clubs with huge windfall when a European club does come in for those players.
Many super clubs have set up sister clubs across the globe, which helps them to snap up talent from places where one wouldn’t go looking every single time. But some clubs have set up various scouting networks in countries and continents, which help them to bring in players to their set-up way before they are spotted by anyone else. Real Madrid have gone back to putting their faith in quality youngsters rather than bringing in a galactico every summer to stamp their name again and again. They’ve developed some of the finest in recent memory with Achraf Hakimi, Sergio Reguillon and Oscar, and already have on their book’s players like Martin Odegaard, Rodrygo, Vinicius Junior and Takefusa Kubo among others.
The club approach
PSG routinely snap up academy prospects from across the country due to their seductive appeal of a big club and the Parisian lifestyle. But they are unable to hold onto the majority of their prospects as they leave the club in search of first-team football and the club loses players who go on to achieve success and silverware with different clubs. With many prospects even preferring a transfer to different rivals in Ligue 1 as the other clubs can give the players a faster route to the first eleven.
Red Bull Franchise have set up a chain of clubs where players are developed and moved onto different clubs of the franchise depending upon their calibre and capabilities. This has helped a lot of players and prospects from different continents to get a chance in the ‘big time’ which, at times, looked impossible to them. With clubs in Africa, South America, North America, Europe, they can offer players from different walks a shot at making big in the game, with RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg two of the biggest clubs in the franchise.
Borussia Dortmund have a unique approach to youth development as they eye the hottest talents on the market when everyone is still considering their risks and they give him the playing time to help him develop and move him on for astronomical figures. They sell him without hampering their side, as they already line up his replacement before the player even leaves the club. They can be regarded as one of the best selling clubs on the planet, as they keep the cycle perpetual, instead of staggered.
With many clubs having a second team operating in the football league, it is another healthy and somewhat comfortable route to the first team. FC Bayern Munchen are one such club among other German clubs, who use a second team to get their academy players game time in the professional set-up before they make the step up to the first team.
Chelsea have a very peculiar youth system, which hasn’t seen many graduates receive first-team minutes until very recently with Frank Lampard in charge. They own the infamous loan army, as many players leave the club every summer on loan, irrespective of the fact that they’ve been guaranteed a spot in the first team squad even if they perform well. This has been widely criticised by many clubs across the divisions, as they are accused of hoarding players. But it has been used to good effect for the club’s benefit, as it is a consistent cash inflow with all the loan fees paid, and an eventual transfer income, over very little investment upfront.
It can be debated whether it is advantageous to indulge in young players, as it is becoming a norm these days, with both sides having their say about the pros and cons of such indulgence. But it has equal effects on both sides, as sometimes the player may become what everyone expected him to be, but in others, it just might be the case of being overwhelmed by the situation and crumbling under pressure. It’s the youth system’s job, to make them self-sustaining for all sorts of scenarios that they may encounter in life after football. With clubs more obsessed on getting a quality prospect, it is often the clubs that suffer in the long run in comparison to the players, with the way their staff and mentors nurture the younger players ultimately.
A good set-up ensures that whoever walks through the door to the academy will be a good influence on everyone around them, even at first-team level. Money can’t be separated from football, as most of the big clubs are a business, instead of a football club. It isn’t wrong for it to be that way, but if it becomes a bane to the society and the atmosphere around the club, on any level, something is going wrong at how the club is run. They’re meant to raise idols and role models for millions of kids and adolescents across the globe by using the glitz and the glamour afforded to them to inspire instead of flaunt. The players a club brings in, and keeps hold of, is the ultimate reflection of the manager in charge and the attributes a club advertises itself on.