Youth development in football

Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. By this definition the majority of the world’s top football clubs as well as its young talent continue to navigate the fine line between success and insanity.

I’m talking about some of the best young football talent in the world at the moment that continue leave the lush, healthy development environments of smaller clubs for the bright sexy lights of football’s giants which more often than not end up being development graveyards.


It is less bad for the clubs although it is hard to measure what could have been with the amount of talent that gets wasted at the likes of Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester City year in and year out.

It angers me when I see young footballers with world class potential taking the easy money or fame, rather than a path that may be harder or less fun but will achieve long-term results.

No one seems to learn from the stories of Sergio Canales, Gael Kukata or Pedro Leon – all talents that were tipped for the very top of the football world and yet I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you have never heard their names.

I could have picked hundreds of very obvious examples but I am going to use one that I wrote about three years ago and is relevant again now.

Who has heard of Karim Rekik? Nobody?

Okay then let me introduce you! Karim is a 20-year-old Dutch centre back who made a footballing name for himself in Varkenoord, the youth academy of Dutch club Feyenoord Rotterdam. Rotterdam has one of the world’s most successful academies boasting graduates such as Salomon Kalou, Dirk Kuyt, Robin van Persie, and Royston Drenthe.

Karim was part of a massively successful Feyenoord and Dutch U17 side along with then Arsenal prospect now FC Twente midfielder Kyle Ebecilio as well as current Chelsea youngster Nathan Ake and former Blues youngster Jeffrey Bruma (Bruma is also back in the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven).

He joined his compatriots in being lured over by the bright lights of the English Premier League and was signed by Manchester City at the age of 17.

After four years with the Blue side of Manchester, four years that should have been building upon his raw talent and developing him into the player we all expected, he left the club with only one appearance for the senior side, two loan moves to the fertile football development grounds of Portsmouth and Blackburn and then a returned to the Netherlands for the last two years where he has been playing beside Jeffrey Bruma in the center of PSV’s defense.

It is important to note that while young players are easily swayed by certain clubs and certain salary figures, the clubs are almost as much to blame for the waste of talent. Too often do the best football clubs treat young football talent as a finished product rather than the diamond in the rough that they are.

Once they realise they need work, they get shafted down to the reserve squad or loaned out in the hopes that they magically realize their potential without first team football. Look at two of the most famous academies in football and what they have in common.

The players that have come out of Ajax Amsterdam and FC Barcelona are some of the best in history and each academy deserves a tome dedicated to their policies, practices and successes (a tome that every other club and coach on the planet should have to read by the way).

Two things are important about these clubs, one is that the core of their academy and first team players are local talent, even from the city they are in. They then compliment that core by using their extensive scouting network to find international talent as well as luring talent away from other established clubs.

Second is that young players know that if they are good enough they will get their shot in the first team. This year alone in Barcelona, a squad that boasts as many world class stars as Chelsea, Manchester City or Arsenal, gave debuts to six academy youngsters (Edgar le, Alen Halilovic, Gerard Gumbau, Munir El Haddadi, Sandro Ramirez and Sergi Samper).

All of these players now can build on their experiences of training and playing matches beside some of the best, and use that to boost their development in the coming seasons.

Many of the top English sides do neither of the things mentioned above, strange when the entire football world has seen the obvious success of a good academy (even in the Premier League with a club like Southampton).

English clubs will take the best talent from existing top academies at a tender age and then not have the interest, expertise or resources to continue that development. Thankfully sometimes it only delays a player’s growth and potential and doesn’t stunt it completely.

For example former Real Madrid academy graduates Roberto Soldado and Juan Mata had no clear path into the first team and were shipped off to other clubs. Both managed to thrive and find their way to another footballing giant but that is in spite of their original club’s poor development policies.

**I should note that Real Madrid have an amazing academy and talent identification program but due to Florentino Perez’s Galactico policy there is no clear path to be able to continue the development into the first team.

I would like to also point out the glaringly obvious correlation there is between countries who’s top clubs value long-term player development versus those that do not.


In the examples above, Spain (Barcelona, Madrid, Bilbao, Atletico) and the Netherlands (Feyenoord, PSV, Ajax) have been and will continue to compete at the top of international football due to the commitment to young player development.

In stark contrast is England, a team with so much passion and potential but little to no support from the club and player development level despite being one of the richest leagues in the world.

Feyenoord Rotterdam’s manager in 2011, Eric Gudde made a valid point when talking about losing yet another player to the wiles of English football and the almighty £.

This is unfortunate for Feyenoord and the supporters but in most cases these moves do not work out, especially for the boy himself. When they go abroad they are just 16 and it all seems great but if you look at the statistics the majority end in huge disappointment for the player. He can get a big foreign club but he never gets in the first-team and is then released and returns, several years later to the Netherlands.


Even players who leave Holland when they’ve built a career here and even played for Oranje sometimes have it difficult abroad. Babel, Rigter, Drenthe, Maduro, De Ridder, Musampa, Stam – we all know the examples. It’s hard and it’s not just about being a good player. These lads are so young, though and the stats are clear – most of these adventures fail. Most of these kids are badly developed and then they’re out on loan and then they come back here, and actually have lost progress.


The fact that Holland develops better than England should be a reason for the English clubs to leave them here too. I can imagine deals between Dutch and English clubs on a development level, but signing 15-year-old is simply stupid. For all involved.

That last sentence is an important one. How is this not happening on a much bigger level (especially in England where finding rather than developing world class talent seems to take priority).

The business world does it with partnerships and joint ventures, such a deal on a development level as suggested by Eric Gudde would benefit both Dutch and English football while having the added benefit of actually being the right thing for the young players, who are the most important in this picture after all.

You can trace the effects of a successful youth system up to all of the recent international champions. Realising the potential of your local talent will not only build you a successful club, but it will have a long term effect of improving your country’s performance as well.

It can only be ignored for so long and for my part, I hope that Karim Rekik can join those who succeed despite poor decisions and poor player development.

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