For many football fans, there is no greater joy than to see their own youth make the step up from the youth ranks into the first team. For a club to blood their own youngsters, to see them wear the badge proudly, and to represent their club, is a pleasing sight. For the youngsters themselves, there is no greater joy than to have their names printed on the back of the shirts they worship, and to represent their club on the pitch. It’s a childhood dream, realized.
The youth systems, in England, and Europe have undergone some serious revamping over the last decade. Every team possesses above par, if not excellent youth academies. Many youngsters have made the step up to the first team, achieving staggering success. With the tremendous investment in football clubs, there is also a huge emphasis laid on youth development. The likes of Steven Gerrard, John Terry and Tony Adams have been part of this revolution. The youth academies of clubs like Barcelona and Ajax stand testament to the idea of youth football development.
With the introduction of the new under-21 league in England this term, to which we must devote another article entirely, we are now upon a new era in youth football.
But a persistent complaint has always been that the youth never get a platform to showcase their talents, to compete on the national or continental levels, and to challenge themselves against the best in their age groups. This forces clubs to loan out their players to lower division clubs, which may be, at times, a baptism of fire for the young starlets. Many a times, these youth are simply shunted out on loan season after season, which leaves them frustrated, and they end up leaving the club. With this view in mind, various domestic U-19 and U-21 leagues, and now, the Next-gen series has been introduced, and following its inception last year, has picked up a serious following this year.
What is the Next-Gen series? The Next-Gen Series heralds a new era in competitive, featuring the next generation of world-class players who have been trained by some of the greatest clubs in Europe. The competition has already kicked off this season, and in addition to last season’s participants, features the likes of Barcelona, Chelsea,and Juventus . Twenty four teams compete with the quest to become the champions of Europe. The twenty-four clubs are divided into six groups of four. The top two teams from each group and the four teams finishing 3rd who have amassed the most points will enter the knock-out stages, which would eventually culminate in the final. Last season saw Inter emerge champions after beating Ajax on penalties. The series aims at pitting the best youth players against each other, and to introduce youngsters to the spectacle that European football is.
So how does this new competition help football clubs. It’s quite simple, really. Clubs get to test the level of their youth academies against those of their rivals. They get to exchange ideas and information regarding youth system development. It also allows them to let their youngsters stay on at the club, and not be loaned off elsewhere for regular football. To-be managers pursuing their coaching badges have an opportunity to test themselves at the continental level and expand their horizons, thereby introducing them to newer techniques and tactics unique to various other nations. Next-Gen is more than just a tournament for teenage talent, it is an opportunity for everyone involved in the youth system of a club to be part of a continental spectacle. For those of us who followed the tournament last year, the series offered us a taste of what is to come in the future. And this is just the beginning.
In a nutshell, the Next-Gen series has laid the foundations for a phenomenal change in youth football in Europe. Who knows, we might catch a glimpse of the next Zidane, Nedved or Messi in this competition, or perhaps we might see the next Mourinho, or Guardiola (who incidentally had a stint managing the Barca youth team himself!).
Suffice to say that the Next-Gen series is the way forward for aspiring youth teams in Europe. And the good thing is, it’s here to stay.