Is the success of a football club’s youth academy dependant on how many players make the first team?
Youth academies are just like normal schools that children attend – students graduate and can apply for higher studies.
La Masia, De Toekomst, Instalaciones de Lezama – all academies internationally renowned for ‘producing’ young footballing talent. It is considered a success if students graduate from high school. That is normal.
However, if a player doesn’t make the first team of a club the academy is considered to be failing. That isn’t normal.
It can be argued that since academies have the obligation to also develop good footballers, apart from developing good people, it would be unfair to judge both youth academies and schools on the same playing field.
But that argument simply doesn’t stand. Academies don’t have the obligation to develop good footballers.
They have the obligation to provide a good education, which also may involve a good sports education.
It is the children, and sometimes their families, choose the path they feel is best for them. And professional football isn’t the only path. In fact, it actually may be the least favorable one.
The world of football is highly competitive, especially at the youth levels, and making it as a professional football player is a huge deal for any player:
To this day it is the best feeling I have had in football. Not winning the championship or the Champions League but that moment, when I was 17 years old, and I had finally become a professional footballer.
There were 300 boys wanting to go pro. Of all, I was the only one in the team to make it. This is the reality: of 300, there are 299 dreams that are crushed on the way.
And it’s not that graduates of an academy who don’t play football have no opportunities. Look at the careers that open up for them – consultancy, management, sports science and psychology, medicine, and even football coaching.
This is why most youth academies allocate less than two hours for football training and a majority of time on school work, and why children are encouraged to attend university even if they are playing for the reserve team.
Even those who make it to professional football know that football is a job like any other.
Building a football career, just like any other career, is all about opportunities and money.
For example, Adama Traoré, on a Barcelona B contract and sensing his first-team chances were limited, moved to Aston Villa for higher chances of success and a wage of a Premier League standard.
So, given the competitiveness of world football, should Espanyol get credit for developing winger Dani Nieto, a player who at 24-years-old has played for Girona, Alcorcón, Barcelona B, Eibar, and now for Greek side Skoda Xanthi?
Should Uruguayan outfit Fénix be lauded for churning out striker Diego Ifrán, a player who was destined for better things following his move to Danubio, but is back in Uruguay at Peñarol this summer after five years in Spain with little success?
And should Spanish fourth-tier outfit Bembibre be proud to have developed a professional footballer – 30-year-old center-back Rui Da Gracia who plays for Hibernians in Malta’s top flight – all while being theoretically amateur themselves?
Yes, yes, and yes. Given the odds they have produced individuals all of whom are capable of sustaining a career in professional football.
They invested the time, money and energy in developing a football player.
Given the amount of hard work and luck every player promotion from a lower level to a higher level is a huge achievement, whether it’s from the under-7 to the under-9 category or from the reserve to the senior team.
But we shouldn’t be so eager to write off those who don’t make it as professional footballers are failures.
It isn’t easy to trace, but the true measure of success of a youth academy isn’t just determined by the number of first-team graduates it churns out.
The real aim of an academy is to see the investment bear fruit not just as great footballers, but much more importantly, great people. Just like any other school.