We all have to start somewhere. Your beginning will define your future. For professional footballers, the same rules apply. They all have to start somewhere. Whether it’s from the humble surroundings of non-league a la Chris Smalling or by exploding into the limelight with a Rooney-esque wonder goal, each and every player has to make his own way into the huge and, occasionally forbidding world of professional football. It’s not easy. Several thousands fail to make the grade, falling by the wayside. Their dreams shattered. But that’s just part of the process. It’s a harsh world. You have to be the best. You have to stand out, make your name known. The academy is the route into the modern game. A starting point, a mere stepping stone for the special few, the naturally gifted, the exceptionally talented. The academy is where it all kicks off. Where a fledging career begins to take flight.It’s importance cannot be overlooked nor can it be underestimated. Academies are an incredibly important, imperative even, acore of any football club. The very best are held in such wide regard that they have become revered, almost fabled, across the wide footballing landscape. It cannot be simple coincidence that so many talented players arise from the same fire to burn their names into club folklore. A footballing factory, mass producing the very finest goods. Occasionally, for major profit. But which is, truly, the best footballing academies in the world? It’s a question many have deliberated over. There’s certainly a few strong candidates for the number one spot, that’s for sure.
West Ham United
We have to credit the academy of West Ham United. They have provided a major core of England’s international set-up for the best part of a decade. Several of the most notorious, most renowned names in English football embarked upon their glorious, trophy laden careers following their graduation in North London. From heroic Lions Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst and legendary captain Bobby Moore who roared their way to victory in ’66 to relentless regulars of the new millennium comprising of Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Jermain Defoe, Joe Cole and Frank Lampard, of course. It’s fair to say, West Ham’s academy has made a colossal impression on our national team. But imagine if they’d remained loyal to the club which first nurtured their auspicious teenage talent. It could have been a golden era at Upton Park. The pool may have dried up in recent years with Mark Noble and Jack Collision the best West Ham have had to offer but there may be a new legion of happy Hammers waiting in the wings. This time, they cannot allow them to fly the nest. But with tricky attacker Robert Hall and versatile defender Dan Potts starting to make a ripple in the overly quiet waters, there’s a new sense of anticipation in the air down at Upton Park.
The Netherlands. The inventors of Total Football.And the home of the illustrious academy belonging to one of European football’s most admired clubs, Ajax. From Johann Cryuff to Christian Eriksen, the “Jong Ajax” has become prolific in its generation of future heroes. Spanning over 100 years, the academy can claim the tutorage of some of the supreme players of a generation, all ingrained with that “Total Football” panache that has become so synonymous with those legendary Dutch teams of the 70’s and 80’s, along with the fluid 4-3-3 formation that was the foundation of their superlative success. The Premier League has been graced with Ajax’s imports over the course of two thrilling decades, with Flying Dutchmen Dennis Bergkamp, Rafael Van Der Vaart and Edgar Davids lighting up our terraces with their silky skills and immaculate control. They also provide the roosts of some of the most decorated players in the modern game, most prominently Wesley Sneijder and the possessor of a trio of Champions League winners’ medals, Clarence Seedorf. And with the likes of Jody Lukoki and the supposed successor to Ruud Van Nistelooy, Viktor Fischer, currently plying their trade with the “Jong” team, the future is bright, the future’s orange for Ajax.
The Busby Babes, Fergie’s Fledglings, the Class of ’92, Manchester United witnessed a countless incredible talents strut their superlative stuff through the doors of their infamous academy. And, with an under 21 side boasting an assortment of encouraging youngsters, another distinguished influx of talent could be just around the corner at Carrington. Sir Alex has always paid special care and attention to his youth squad, who have repaid his unwavering loyalty by helping him accomplish his long-standing dream. To knock Liverpool off their once sky high perch. Without the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and David Beckham, Sir Alex’s aim may have remained a distant dream. United have succeeded where others around them have so consistently failed. Have Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool ever produced such an undeniably talented crop of young professionals? It’s what sets United apart from their rivals. Why devote all your funds to a problem that has a expedient answer? Wesley Sneijder seemed set for a £35 milliom transfer to Old Trafford following the announcement of Paul Scholes’ retirement in 2011. But Sir Alex knew better. He already had a fitter, fresher midfield maestro ready to explode onto the scene. Tom Cleverley, now widely regarded as one of the finest young midfielders in English football. Not bad for free, right? Who can argue with that logic? Especially when Jonny Evans and Danny Welbeck were signed without need for an open chequebook. United are currently on course for a 20th Premier League title, with the new breed of Fergie Fledgling’s fundamental to their soon-to-be success. Whoever said you can’t win anything with kids?
The academy responsible for the indisputable virtuosity of Cristiano Ronaldo has surely got to be esteemed as one of the very best. Even the world’s most expensive footballer had rather inconspicuous beginnings. A £12 million switch to Old Trafford at the adolescent age of 17 showcased the quality that Sporting once possessed, whose standout academy transformed Rocket Ronnie into the love him or hate him figure that he remains to this day. Understandably, Ronaldo’s name will always be bandied around when discussing Sporting’s youth system but, the truth is, the posturing Portuguese skipper is just one of many Leõesto graduate from the Verde-e-Branco’s famed academy. The El Classico conqueror Luis Figo first embarked upon his remarkable footballing journey at Sporting while current international stars Joao Moutinho and Nani can trace their origins back to the Estadio Jose Alvalade. But it doesn’t end there. In juvenile prodigy Bruma, have Sporting finally found the “new Ronaldo” that the world is so consistently craving? Can he succeed where Nani and Ricardo Quaresma lamentably failed? Who knows, but Sporting will just be hopeful that their latest sensation sticks around for a little longer than CR7.
Last but unquestionably, understandably nowhere near least. Disputably the finest team Europe has ever had the privilege to witness. The architects of that “Tika-Taka” style that most has tried, yet failed, to duplicate, with the exception of “Swansealona” of course. Add perhaps the greatest footballer ever to walk the turf to the formula and, it’s fair to say, Barca aren’t doing too badly are they? If you think that’s impressive, consider the fact that the vast majority of the Catalan colossus-es superstars are modest local lads made good. Mind blowing. In November of last year, Tito Villanova fielded a starting XI entirely consisting of academy products of the legendary La Masia academy. They won 4-0. Xavi described his native team-mates as “extraordinary”. High praise indeed. Undoubtedly, La Masia is the most fruitful academy in modern football. The deadly double act of “Xaviesta”, legendary Catalonian captain Carles Puyol and, of course, Lionel Messi who, under the watchful eye of Tito Villanova, has now reached levels that even Diego Maradona found unsurpass-able. Plus, there’s the prodigal sons Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas, returning home after briefly refining their skills elsewhere. And that’s just the tip of the expansive iceberg. Victor Valdes, Sergio Busquetts, Pedro. All with World Cup, European Championship, Champions League and multiple La Liga medals adorning their ever-increasing collection. The most illustrious team of the 21st Century, making a mockery of the Madrid millions. The cornerstone of Spain’s world domination. But don’t expect an Abdication any time soon. With a new cohort ready to make their mark, the Catalan Kings will, again, reign supreme. The current crop cannot remain untouchable forever. They need heirs to their justified thrones. And in Marc Bartra, Martin Montoya, Isaac Cuenca, Cristian Tello and Thiago Alcantara, Barca are in no position to give up their crowns. For us the message is simple; Sit back and enjoy the new generation.
La Masia. The home of the very, very best. Accountable for cultivating the talent of the world’s supreme superstars. And don’t forget, they’re only going to get better. It’s a scary thought, not least for Jose Mourinho. He may need another mountain of millions to overcome Barca this time. La Masia maybe the best, but there’s no deficiency of close seconds. From North London to Amsterdam, the academy remains as imperative as ever. And long may it continue. Who knows who the next superstars will be? We’ll just have to wait and see before we can sit back and admire. That’s the interesting part.
Written By Daniel Owen