Youth development will always be a huge talking point in the modern game, some clubs choose to embrace it, others prefer to buy it. Caleb Cousens talks us through a success story.
Those of you who have been reading my blog will have seen that I am obsessed with youth academies. I honestly believe that having a successful youth academy, along with scouting, are the keys to the long-term success of your club. You have also probably seen that I cannot stand teams that do not bring youth through their ranks and rather raid other teams’ talented products.
What makes a good youth academy? I believe that if a team’s youth system consistently brings amazing players to their senior team (or other senior clubs) then you have the recipe for success. Also if the players you bring through your system stay loyal to you then you must have done something right as well. When I think about the most successful youth academies in the world a number of clubs come to mind: Barcelona, Sau Paulo, Sporting Lisbon, and Ajax have brought forth some of the best players in football at the moment. Between those four clubs we have players like Edwin van der Saar, Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robinho, Diego, Xavi, Clarence Seedorf, Fabregas, and Nani.
But it was only recently that I even considered Argentine club, Boca Juniors, in that list and now I would probably rate them higher than the rest. First, here are some statistics:
in the last decade, Boca have brought through and sold 350 home-grown players of all ages. From that list there is currently 138 academy graduates playing around the world including 36 in Argentina, 20 in Spain, 10 in Italy, 3 in England, and many others in places ranging from Germany and Holland to China and Israel. So that is 35 leagues with players that were raised and developed by the Boca academy system. Just last season they handed debuts to 14 youngsters (and all of them are expected to play for the biggest clubs in Europe in a few years time).
Boca Juniors were struggling in the mid 90s. Arch-rivals River Plate had dominated Argentina for decades, the national team was filled with River Plate youth products and they were the best in the Argentine league. In 1996 new ownership took over Boca Juniors and the ownership stated that rather than buy players for huge money only to put too much expectation on them and watch them under-perform, they wanted to create their own stars. Fans love a player who has come through the club more.
This outlook worked and now Boca Juniors are one of the most followed teams in the world football.
Some key points to their success:
- The Boca Juniors hired two very influential figures; one was leading expert of youth in Argentina who at Newell Old Boys created a fantastic scouting network. The second was the king of 'baby football' (indoor 6-a side football for 5-12 year olds). The second guy alone discovered Carlos Tevez (Man United), Fernanado Gago (Real Madrid). While the first discovered (among others) Nicolas Burdisso (Inter Milan) and Ever Banega (Valencia) and between these four players they almost raised 100 million Euros.
- The scouting system is comprehensive. They have a scout in every small town and close to every village. Nearly all are ordinary people (teachers, butchers and policemen) and the head of the youth system Jorge Griffa regularly traveled around Argentina when he took over and listened to the watching crowd, hiring the most appropriate as a scout for the area. From this system they gain about 25,800 players in trials, from which they sign about 40.
- The youngsters are taught the same formation (4-3-1-2) from early on to the first team. This makes fitting into the first team far easier for a young player. This is coupled with a similar playing style (one of the staff at Boca states that the style is "we don't use sweepers and we like attacking full backs") to Barca who have a similar philosophy in terms of all youngsters playing the same way as the first team (a variation of Ajax's total football).
- Curiously, they really build up the physical side of their youths. The youngsters have as hard a pre-season as a professional. They even do tests to determine what height a player will grow to. They also benefit from the sheer number of players that could come into the club, it means that the current crop can never relax. If player’s don't push themselves they will fall back and may have to quit the club. Interestingly, Gago was almost one of these players but the coach backed him and told him to stay as he could make it.
The success of the club since the “from the roots up” system was brought in has been huge. They have won the Argentinian Apertura 5 times and the Clausura twice since 1996. They won the Copa Libertadores (Champions League of South America) four times since then as well. It goes to show the impact that a successful youth policy can have. They now have 300 football embassies worldwide to find great foreign youngsters, they are marketing themselves amazingly, and they’re now reaping the rewards in Japan and China.
I will leave you with the words of the chief scout of Boca Juniors, "We started this 12 years ago, and it takes that amount of time to start seeing real results. But after that, it will never ever stop. Trust me. The world will keep hearing about Boca from now on."
If you would like to read more from Caleb, please visit Gaffers Corner.