The Top 8 Youth Academies in World Football
Kaka to Real Madrid for €68.5 million in 2009.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Barcelona for €72 million, also in 2009.
The year 2009 will be remembered as the year in which the global financial markets spiraled downward into the depths of doom, triggering another Great Recession, the effects of which can still be felt today (C'mon, Greece).
But in world football, the summer of '09 will be remembered for the shattering of the transfer fee world records.
CR7, Ibra and Kaka combined cost a whopping €234.5 million, making them the first, third and fourth most expensive players in history. While the Dow Jones was at 9069.29 and U.S unemployment was roughly eight percent, the two top Iberian clubs splashed $300 million in the transfer window.
Factor in the rest of the world's soccer clubs, and you get a figure that is more than the GDP of small developing countries.
With transfer fees at astronomical highs, youth academies have grown greatly in importance. Academies remain the life blood of small clubs, and a huge moneymaker for larger clubs. Thus, youth academies have become better funded, and scouts recruit players at younger and younger ages—teaching young lads how to score a bicycle kick before they can even spell bicycle, let alone ride one.
Of course, some academies are better than others. This list will rank the top eight academies, in ascending order.
The Academy of Football (West Ham)
West Ham tend to be overlooked when talking about player development. This is probably because bigger clubs tend to swoop in and take away the players that The Hammers bring through their ranks.
West Ham’s academy has produced young, top-quality English players for years, dating back to when manager Ted Fenton established the academy in the fifties.
Alumni: Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Glen Johnson, Jermain Defoe
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Gremio is a Brazilian club that has established a great tradition of producing world-class talents. The club is officially ranked the No.1 Brazilian team by the CBF (Brazilian Football Confederation).
Alumni: Ronaldinho, Anderson, Lucas Leiva, Eduardo Costa, Lucio
El Semillero (Argentinos Juniors)
Never heard of Argentinos Juniors? Neither had I, before conducting the research to write this article. But I'm confident you've heard of some of their alumni, the most famous of which is pictured above.
Argentinos is a small football club based in Buenos Aires, and their football academy, El Semillero, has produced many football greats.
Alumni: Diego Maradona, Juan Riquelme, Esteban Cambiasso, Coloccini
Arsenal Academy (Arsenal FC)
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Arsene Wenger is a coach who strongly believes in nurturing players rather than purchasing them. So it's no coincidence that Arsenal's youth academy brings out talented young'uns at an impressive rate. Although some would argue that the academy is more focused on quantity than quality, their alumni list is pretty impressive.
Alumni: Ashley Cole, Gael Clichy, Jack Wilshere, Alex Song, Nickals Bendtner, Ray Parlour, Paul Merson, Tony Adams
Sporting Academy Alochete (Sporting CP)
A quick look at Portugal’s best players, past and present, reveals that a majority of them were products of Sporting PUMA Academy in Alcochete. Sporting should try to keep some of their young talents instead of selling them so quickly.
Alumni: Cristiano Ronaldo, Quaresma, Nani, Moutinho, Luis Figo
Manchester United Academy (Manchester United FC)
The Manchester United Academy has consistently produced great players for many years. Alex Ferguson, the longtime manager, combines this flow of youth talent with shrewd transfers to create some truly impressive squads.
Alumni: Charlton, Hughes, Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Smalling, Rafael, Fabio
De Toekomst (Ajax FC)
Ajax are one of the biggest clubs in Europe, but they have suffered from the same plight as West Ham when it comes to keeping hold of the young Dutch players that they develop.
Their youth academy, De Toekomst (which translates literally to "The Future"), produces many terrific talents who grace the world stage. The style taught in the academy is the magnificent "Total Football" philosophy.
Alumni: Johann Cruyff, Wesley Sneijder, Van der Vaart, Suarez, Van der Sar, Vermaelen, Bergkamp, Vertonghen
La Masia (FC Barcelona)
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Was there ever really any doubt?
La Masia, the symbolic home of Barcelona’s youth soccer academy, helped develop eight of the team’s 11 starters for the match against Manchester United in the final of the UEFA Champions League, the world’s most prestigious club tournament.
Given Barcelona’s standing as one of soccer’s best and most attractive teams, La Masia has become an international model for the financial, athletic and social benefits of growing players on home soil.
It differs from the standard American model of youth sports development, which is generally based in schools. And it differs, too, from the typical European soccer model, in which the best players often quit school around the age of 15 to devote their full attention to the sport.
For instance, team officials said that a dozen players on Barcelona’s B team—as well as one of its stars, midfielder Andrés Iniesta—are taking college courses. Each player living at the academy is provided a laptop computer. On staff are cooks, nutritionists, a doctor, a psychologist, tutors and social directors who take the players on outings around the city.
The success of Barcelona’s youth academy was never more evident than in 2010, when graduates Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández and Iniesta were the three finalists for the Ballon d'Or.
From an economic standpoint, growing your own players is not so different from growing your own vegetables—it saves money at the market. In Barcelona’s case, this strategy has allowed it to be judicious in spending tens of millions of dollars in transfer fees, paid apart from salaries, to sign players from other teams.
In 2009, Real Madrid spent $132 million just for the rights to forward Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United and another $94 million for the rights to the Brazilian playmaker Kaká from A.C. Milan. Since then, Madrid has failed to win the Spanish league, much less the Champions League.
Alumni: Josep Guardiola, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro, Puyol, Pique, Fabregas, Arteta, Thiago Alcantara, Cuenca, Busquets...