Every player in world football comes from an academy. The tradition was that boys would be scouted by teams as they entered their teenage years and would develop in the academy until they were of playing age, usually around 18 years old. Nowadays however, youngsters are being plucked from youth teams by the world’s top clubs from as young as four or five years old. How much one can read into the footballing ability of a child who is practically fresh out of the womb remains up for debate but this doesn’t change the fact that academies play an increasingly important role in footballers’ development and in the economic fortunes of every professional soccer club in the world.
If a club can acquire a youngster for free, spend minimally on turning him into a top-class footballer then either sell him on for a massive fee or enjoy the fruits of his labour themselves, they are laughing all the way to the bank. It might seem cold to talk about the sport we all know and love in such empirical and calculated terms but, when all is said and done, this is the way those in charge of football clubs tend to think nowadays.
So which clubs can claim to have mastered the smooth running of this footballing chain of supply? Let’s take a look at the top 10…
10. Athletic Bilbao
Athletic Bilbao’s academy, La Cantera, is a stunningly productive organisation. And it has to be. Bilbao are unique in world football in that they only field players who were born in Basque Country, meaning they have to be almost 100% self-sufficient. The last study that was conducted showed that, on average, 85% of Bilbao’s squad came through the academy.
Javi Martinez, Ander Herrera, Muniain, Susaeta and Fernando Llorente all came through La Cantera and had a monumental impact. Apart from being financially rewarding for Bilbao, there is also a noble quality in their self-sufficient model.
Pele. Need I say more? Yes? Okay, Neymar. Still need persuading? Robinho, Elano, Ganso Felipe Anderson, Diego, Emerson.
Santos’s footballing heritage is rich but its current generation is up to par with its products of days gone by too. They are one of the best clubs in Brazil for promoting youngsters to the first team and it is an approach which consistently works in their favour
Throughout England, Southampton have long been known as having one of the best youth set-ups around. Before Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Gareth Bale there was Alan Shearer and Matt Le Tissier. A quick look at their academy’s Wikipedia page will enlighten you to the scale of their turnover of excellent young players – it is made even more remarkable when considered in conjunction with the fact that Southampton have spent most of the 21st century outside the top-flight.
Other notable alumni of Southampton are Adam Lallana who was a vital part of Liverpool’s scarily good squad prior to injury, James Ward-Prowse who is in regular contention for England, Tyrone Mings who is now at Aston Villa and recently got his first international cap under Gareth Southgate and Luke Shaw who looks on track to revitalise what promised to be an excellent career with Manchester United.
7. Sao Paulo
Brazil is a hotbed for bombastic, technically gifted players. The current generation of youngsters in the nation grew up idolising Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and the like. As such, there is no shortage of these flair-filled players. Harnessing this raw potential and cultivating a player who is truly capable of performing at the highest level in Brazil and beyond is a different ball game, however.
In the past, through the production of players like Kaka and Cafu, two of the greatest Brazillian footballers to ever pull on the famous yellow shirt, Sao Paolo have ensured their reputation throughout world football is top-notch. More recently, they have continued their extraordinarily disproportionate level of influence over the world game through introducing David Luiz, Casemiro and Lucas Moura. Even more recently they have given Eder Militao, now of Real Madrid, and David Neres, now of Ajax, their first starts in football. For this they are rightly lauded as one of the game’s best producers of talent.
6. K.R.C. Genk
K.R.C. Genk would not have been likely to feature on this list in days gone by but in the past decade or so they have marked themselves apart from their European rivals as one of the best and most efficient producers of talent in world football.
The most high-profile academy graduate is Kevin De Bruyne, the world’s best midfielder. They have also given opportunities to other Belgium World Cup semi-finalists Thibaut Courtois, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi and Yannick Carrasco.
It is an approach which is paying off for Genk, both financially from the transfer fees they receive for these players, and in the trophies they have won in recent years. In this second, more reliable metric of success, Genk have returned to winning ways at the top of Belgium First Division for the first time in a decade and are a regular proposition in both the Europa League and Champions League.
5. Manchester United
When it comes to the best youth academies in England and the UK, there is none more revered than Manchester United’s. The most prominent example of their work with young footballers came in the form of the now-famous ‘Class of 92’ featuring David Beckham, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes among others. This remarkable group of players all came through the youth system at Carrington and graduated in the same year. They often cited as the reason that Manchester United enjoyed such rampant success throughout the 90s and 2000s.
In recent years, Manchester United have churned out players not quite so relentlessly but have still developed some outstanding athletes. Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay are both stars of the current Manchester United XI and Mason Greenwood and Angel Gomes look ready to set the world on fire in the next few years.
4. Sporting Lisbon
When one thinks of Sporting Lisbon, the obvious name that springs to mind is Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese was scouted by Sporting when he was a youngster playing in Madeira and the club, whose scouts recognised his stratospheric potential, covered his living costs in order for him to develop with them. But Cristiano is far from the only player to have risen through the ranks at the Alcochete Academy.
Ricardo Quaresma started his career with Sporting before moving on to Barcelona. Luis Nani was highly sought after when he graduated from Alcochete, ultimately moving to Manchester United and enjoying an excellent career. The legendary Luis Figo spent his formative years there too as did Joao Moutinho, Eric Dier, William Carvalho and Miguel Veloso.
The recent success of the Portuguese national team, as well as Sporting’s longevity at the pinnacle of their domestic game, is down, in large part, to their excellent youth set-up. And the current crop of youngsters and those who have recently departed Alcochete isn’t half bad either. Rafael Leao, now of AC Milan, is tipped to be an amazing player, as is Elves Balde and Miguel Luis.
3. Bayern Munich
Confusingly, Bayern Munich are a team not usually talked about in the same bracket as the top youth academies in the world. Why this is the case is unclear. Perhaps there is a conception that because they are so dominant in the Bundesliga and have been for so many years, that they buy their success. But this could not be further from the truth. Until the very recent arrival of Lucas Hernandez from Atletico Madrid, Bayern’s record transfer was Corentin Tolisso for just £37-million in 2017.
Midway through the 90s, the officials at Barcelona, having observed the success of Ajax and Barcelona’s youth set-ups, decided to revamp their academy completely. It turned out to be a decision that would pay considerable dividends. Matts Hummels, Thomas Muller, Phillip Lahm, Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Emre Can were instrumental players in Germany’s World Cup success in 2014. They have also churned out the likes of David Alaba and Owen Hargreaves. Their 2013 Champions League success was a stunning testament to their faith in their academy.
Every now and then, a club will produce a freakishly talented generation of players that will go on to be disproportionately influential in world football. Often these amazing batches of players are one-offs, a product of a particularly impressive era for any given academy. But one team produces true world-beaters, time and time again, year after year, decade after decade: Ajax.
In the 70s it was Johan Cruyff, Sjaak Swart and Ruud Krol. Barely 10 years later and the same academy introduced the world to Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp and Frank do Boer. Fast-forward another ten years and the Ajax Youth Academy was still unrelenting. Edgar Davids, Clarance Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert all came from there and went on to have excellent careers. In the early 2000s, they produced another golden generation of Dutch players, as well as a few for Belgium’s world-beating defence (Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen. Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, Gregory van der Wiel and Nigel de Jong were the next generation to keep the Ajax flag flying high.
Now, after a few quiet years, Ajax are at it again. The team that reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2019 boasted the likes of Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek and Matthijs de Ligt.
Maybe there’s something in the water in Amsterdam…
Victor Valdes, Marvin Montoya, Gerrard Pique, Carlos Puyol, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi – the Barcelona team on the 25th of November 2012 in a relatively routine 4-0 victory over Valencians. Apart from the staggering depth of talent on display, what else is remarkable about this Barcelona XI? They are all products of the Blaugrana academy, La Masia. It meant that Johan Cruyff’s vision of an elite team which could sustain itself using only the products of its academy had been realised. And this wasn’t some average, mid-table side. No, this was one of the greatest teams in a generation, the team which had won two Champions League titles in three years under Pep Guardiola and had irreversibly revolutionised the way we look at football. This was a La Masia Barcelona.
The academy has simple origins. It was originally a renovated farmhouse converted into a dormitory which housed players aged 6+. Since then, it has significantly widened its scope, training hundreds of young boys into men who are capable of working within Barcelona’s distinct footballing philosophy. One only has to watch clips of La Masia academy matches to see how seriously the academy takes itself – they have flares, singing sections, the lot. Quite simply, La Masia is far-and-away the world’s best academy.