The growth of the academies (Part 1): Institutes of Higher Learning for soccer — is this really the way to go?

By Paul Gardner

Soccer academies. What a great idea! Fully-funded centers for the development of young players, superior facilities, top coaching, all the latest scientific and professional knowledge … and, we are told, with a caring staff who understands not only soccer, but have insight too into the real-life growing-up problems that beset teenagers.

There is also an administrative benefit, in that boys can now be sure that the training they receive is part of a wider program, that they are getting the same basic training as all the other boys of their age. The bad old days of hundreds of freelance clubs, each having their own idea of what was the best way to create players (and some of them having no idea at all), are gone. Or so it seems.

The list of the benefits that can be linked to soccer academies is pretty damn impressive. No doubt it’s not complete. I’ll add one further advantage, rather different from those listed, because it’s intangible. That is the use of the word “academy.”

On the strength of that one word, soccer training jumps from simply running about on grass fields and being shouted at, to being part of the education system. My dictionary, in defining “academy,” starts off with Plato, and works its way to “a school offering instruction or training in a special field.”

A school, then. Which brings up visions of schoolmasters and lecture rooms and syllabuses and timetables and so on — maybe even homework. But “school” was not the appointed word. “Academy” was chosen. It suggests a step up from a mere school — you could say from schoolmasters to professors. It gives — and was no doubt intended to give — an aura of respectability and seriousness. Those words are important. They do something to dispel the put-down that soccer is merely a sport, so what’s to learn? I mean, who needs an academy to learn how to kick a ball, that sort of thinking.

Certainly the academies have become very serious — in the financial sense. A lot of money is now being invested by pro clubs and leagues in running academies. English Premier League clubs are estimated to spend around $100 million a year on such programs. It makes sense. A club that can produce its own players — preferably world-class players, of course — won’t need to enter the ruinously expensive transfer market in search of stars.

But … of course, there’s a hitch somewhere along this yellow brick road to stardom. The absolutely fundamental question that has to be asked of the academies is: Do they work? Are they producing the steady flow of superior players that they’re supposed to?

Getting a straight answer to that question encounters difficulties. Not least because the academy system has taken widespread root, it is expensive to run, and a lot of people rely on it now for their living. Put it this way: there is now a sizable group of soccer people who have a vested interest in the academy setup — people who are unlikely to be too critical of it.

But the critics do exist. Do they have a point? I think they do, and a recent study by the Switzerland-based International Center for Sports Studies (CIES from the French version of its title), Football Observatory division, must surely give pause to anyone who feels that the academies are the way to go. The Football Observatory report relies on statistics — well, so much the better, for they take the “personal opinion” factor out of the discussion.

The FO has this to say: Across the top leagues in 31 European countries, the percentage of club-trained (i.e. academy-trained) players on their rosters is 19.7% — the first time it has fallen below 20% since the stats were first calculated, in 2009.

One player in five might not sound so bad, but it does not tell the whole story. Once we look at the big European leagues, the percentage drops considerably. In the English Premier League it is 11.7%, in Germany 13.3%, in Italy 8.6% (the lowest). Two major countries rise above 20% — Spain (23.7%), a country that is doing rather well, and the Netherlands (22.8%), a country that is not doing at all well.

The figures suggest that there aren’t any clubs, anywhere in Europe, that can rely on their own academies producing more than a couple of players for the first team. Even more worrying, most of the percentages are falling. The EPL figure is now 11.78% — but a year ago it was 13.8%.

I have no stats telling me how many homegrown players used to graduate to the first team back in the pre-academy days. But we all knew that it wasn’t very many. Predicting which 14-year-olds will make it all the way into the pros has always been known to be a very tricky business.

And it was partly — maybe even mainly — for that reason that the smooth efficiency of the academy system was invented, with its systematic scouting, its close monitoring of players’ progress. The computer, of course, plays a big role. The system was, clearly, going to take a lot of the guesswork out of the old hit-or-miss approach to scouting. It very clearly marked a switch from amateurs to professionals.

Having professionals, rather than amateurs, in charge of a major undertaking like youth development will be seen by most people as a good thing. More organized, more efficient, more reliable, more informed, more up to date, just about more everything.

Even so, I think it is a big mistake to assume that professionals will automatically improve everything. That assumes that the pros are close to perfection, and we know, from numerous examples in business and government, how far from the truth that is. Because the pros bring problems of their own. I’ll have more to say about those problems shortly.

At a guess, I’d say the old, rather chaotic system, probably produced, at any one time, a couple of first team players per club. Or, pretty much the same total as the academies, according to the FO figures, are providing.

Actually, the academies may have a statistical advantage. A club-trained player is identified by the FO as a youngster who has spent at least three seasons between the ages of 15 and 21 training with his current side. That is not a very stringent definition — it includes boys who join the club at ages — like 15 or 16 — when there is surely much less doubt involved about their ability to make it, and therefore of their numbering among an academy’s “successes.”

Whatever, I can find no convincing evidence that shows the academies to be producing more top players than the old laissez-faire system. The FO figures strongly suggest that the opposite is happening, that the number of acceptably skilled academy graduates is declining.

If the academies were living up to expectations, there should have been a demonstrable, certainly a detectable, up-turn in the appearance of such players. That has not happened. Which is a serious indictment of the academies on two fronts: They are not doing the job in soccer terms, and — for those who believe in a profit-and-loss verdict — they are proving a poor investment.

So, to ask whether the academies are doing their job is not a mischievous question. Despite the thinking and the energy and the money that, worldwide, has gone into the building up of the academy system, something is misfiring.

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