Football - ADVISORY-Reuters examines the world of soccer academies

(Advisory alerting clients to soccer academies package, repeats clarifying figure in para 6 is 1,000)


* Reuters reports on the academy system throughout Europe

* Widely different approaches with Barcelona leading the way

* Only a fraction of young hopefuls make it to the professional ranks

* Tight finances and new rules forcing clubs to focus on finding young talent

The world of soccer academies is perplexing, occasionally uplifting but also disconcerting, with widely differing approaches to recruitment, education and welfare and hugely contrasting levels of success across Europe's major leagues.

Reuters reporters have produced a series of in-depth multi-media stories, features and interviews to be issued over the next three days which examine the differing approaches and trends among countries and clubs and address some of the issues and concerns.

Comparing like with like is not always easy as what qualifies as an "academy" or youth player in one country differs from the criteria of another while some clubs are reluctant to release figures of their success rate, or otherwise.

However, many aspects are universal as thousands of children, often starting from as young as seven, are plucked from their local clubs and pumped through the system, all dreaming that they will make it as professional players.

Almost none of them will.

Some will survive cull after cull as they grow up and a tiny percentage, probably less than one in 1,000 taking into account all age groups, will make it to the club's professional ranks. Even among that minute sub-group only a few will go on to become first-team regulars.

Some of the biggest and richest clubs in the game such as 2012 European champions Chelsea and half of Italy's Serie A seem incapable of, or unwilling to promote their best youth players, despite theoretically having the pick of the nation.

Others, like Barcelona, seem to be able to identify, nurture and keep the cream of their nation's youth while others such as Ajax Amsterdam have turned player development into a virtual industry, training up then trading young players like commodities for the long-term good of the club.

Spanish clubs currently have around 25 percent of their players as products of their academies and when Barcelona played Levante last year there was a point in the match when all 11 of their team had come through the Barcelona academy.

In Italy the figure is less than eight percent and only now are the biggest Italian clubs getting their acts together.

Manchester United have an impressive production line, last year boasting 12 squad players as academy products, while Chelsea have failed to achieve their own modest target of getting one academy player into the first team every 18 months.

Others prefer to ignore the talent on their doorstep and let other smaller clubs do the initial scouting before quite legally "poaching" the best prospects before they reach 16.

Clubs can import foreign youngsters, put them in their academies for three years and then declare them as "home grown" to satisfy local and UEFA regulations.


Financial fair play rules and tightening budgets also have an impact as clubs are forced to curtail transfer expenditure and look within.

Manchester City, a club with seemingly endless resources, have invested a reported 100 million pounds ($152 million) in their new academy knowing that the days of just buying up the world's best players are numbered.

For more than a decade all clubs in Germany's top-two divisions have had to run a regulated academy in order to be granted a licence to compete. Combined with a structured model to identify talent from kindergarten level, that has helped produce a surge in home-grown talent making it through all the way to the national team.

In France, the model includes a central academy run by the federation that works with the cream of the crop - and ensures that all its scholars also have a rounded education, spending four times as long studying than developing their football skills.

Regardless of the success or failure in getting players through to the pro ranks, and even with the most thoughtful pastoral care and education provision, things can be incredibly difficult once the youngsters are into the system.

Often backed by star-struck parents with dollar signs spinning in front of their eyes, no amount of warnings about the failure rate and the need for education and planning for an alternative career is likely to deter the young players from investing their energies into the single-minded pursuit of their one goal.

Some clubs take an enlightened approach, working hard on education and welfare and trying to prepare the vast numbers of "rejects" for what they consider to be life on the scrap heap while most of their peers have barely left school.

It does not stop there either as even those who do get a taste of the professional game, and spent most of their life entirely focused on achieving that target, struggle to adapt to normal life if their careers become measured in months rather than decades.

A British charity for ex-footballers, Xpro, says that there are over 130 former professionals serving time in British jails and, most alarmingly, 124 of them are under 25.

The package will be published in two sections, from 0200 GMT Thursday March 28 and 0200GMT Friday March 29.

($1 = 0.6586 British pounds)

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