Last year in April when I got wind that the finals of the UEFA Youth League would be at the Centre Sportif de Colovray, Nyon, I got really excited at the prospect of watching the Barcelona youth team (against Benfica). I could not resist the offer of a complementary ticket to the match even though the train ticket from Geneva to Nyon cost twice as much and it meant taking an afternoon off from work. Well, that is how much I love football, or rather how much I looked forward to watching the next Messi, Iniesta or Xavi! The match was quite good, but I must admit that it did not quite live up to my high expectations, more so the La Masia work in progress. Only one player stood out as the the next Messi – Mounir El Haddadi. He capped his player of the tournament performance by scoring an extravagant goal, catching the keeper off his line with a lob cum shot from his own half. Another one that caught the eye for his blistering pace and strength was Adama Traore. This season El Haddadi managed to break into the Barcelona first team with a catching debut performance against Elche in August 2014, but that is all I have heard about him since. Last time I heard of Traore he was being eyed by a mid-table team in the English Premier League.
Well, that was the finale of the first edition of the UEFA Youth League. This year I cannot say I was looking forward to the event, but when the reminder came I could not resist. But first I had to see who had qualified for the semi-finals. Both the semi-final and final matches are played at the Centre Sportif de Colovray in Nyon, Switzerland (UEFA Headquarters). Anderlecht, Chelsea, Roma and Shakhtar Donetsk. First observation was that none of their senior teams made it the quarter final of the main competition, UEFA Champions League. Perhaps this can be explained by the non-European influence at the top level, mainly from South America and Africa to some extent Africa. Data from CIES Football Observatory shows that between 2009 and 2014 the Big Five (England, France, Germany Spain and Italy) have registered a high number of expatriates (over 40%) and with a good number coming from South America and Africa. If you zero down to the top 5 teams in each league the percentages are even higher. For example during the 2013 – 2014 season the top 5 teams in England had 73.55% expatriates. This could explain why Chelsea won the UEFA Youth League but failed to live to their billing in the senior competition and perhaps why the England national team rarely performs well at major competitions.
Football as it is, has also been affected by globalisation. In recent years we have seen a great increase in the number of players seeking greener pastures abroad. Players have flocked to Europe in their thousands with many targeting the Big Five leagues. This has no doubts led to development, economic and otherwise, in both destination and source countries, with countries such as Brazil reporting high foreign remittance over the years. However, this can have a negative impact on youth development especially in the destination countries. Take for example Dominic Solanke, UEFA Youth League top scorer with 12 goals. Although he is a good striker it is difficult to see him playing regularly for the senior team, where he would be competing with the likes of Diego Costa (Brazilian-born Spanish international) and Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast). There is a high chance that Solanke will end up in a smaller club and perhaps a lower league, as expensive imports from other countries dominate the big clubs.
After my article, A Strategy for Growth and Development, I had the opportunity to sit with a good friend who asked me how my proposed strategy addressed leakage. It is a good thing to develop talent, but we also have to ensure we have enough places for the talent, since not everyone can be at the top. Hence the need to focus on grassroots and building strong structures that cater for the leakage. Two approaches emerge here.
Firstly, we need an age-based structure to ensure controlled development of players. I believe this is one of the reasons the UEFA Youth League (Under 19) was started. It allows young players to participate at the top level without being at the top. Most of the players (at least the ones I looked up) have represented their clubs/countries at various age levels. You can be sure along the way many others diverted from the professional track to pursue other careers both within and outside football. By the time you are between the ages of 18 to 21 you are good enough for a professional career in football. However, due to the intense competition at the top level especially at the Big Five leagues the players end up in smaller clubs and or less competitive leagues – sometimes on a temporary arrangement, but always as the finished product.
About 2 years ago I was quite surprised when a team in the Geneva 3rd league (Association cantonale genevoise de football) realised half-way through the season that they could not be promoted to the 2nd league simply because they did not have a junior team. This was clearly stated in the rules. Bear in mind that this is in the amateur ranks. There is a huge emphasis of having a youth system within clubs in Europe, something that Kenya and other countries seeking to develop football should borrow from. For example the Kenyan Premier League (KPL) Under 19 tournament would be a great place to breed future stars of the senior competition.
The second aspect is the need to develop football from the grassroots. This means having structures (leagues and competitions) right down to the constituency level, or lower, and make sure these are attractive and competitive enough for players. We can also seek ways of commercialising the amateur levels to some extent, something I hope to cover in future article. Here my focus is addressing the leakage that can result from an overflow of talent and the globalisation effect, that is, players moving across borders in search of greener pitches. Currently in Kenya there is sizeable number of talented foreigners players mainly from Uganda turning out for KPL clubs. This is as a result of globalisation albeit with a limited scope. So just like in the developed leagues younger talent may be denied the opportunity to get to the top and should therefore have the possibility to continue with their development, perhaps by moving to lower leagues.
UEFA have seen it fit to introduce the UEFA Youth League and I feel this is a positive move in addressing football development with the a focus on the youth. It is is not as big as the UEFA Champions League or the Europa League but it provides the right platform for talented young stars, some of whom may never play at the very top, to showcase their talent as they continue to develop. Judging by the event in Nyon you can tell that the tournament will continue to grow in stature in the coming years. No doubt this is a good model to follow for anyone seeking to develop football or any other sport. It is unfortunate the Kenyan Premier League Under 19 tournament was shelved this year due to lack of support, financially and otherwise. It would be good to see such initiatives revived and supported as they hold the key to the future of football.