Rebuilding England

Too much too young

October 9, 2013
By Gabriele Marcotti

The Football Association regulates the academy system in part to help produce the next generation of English footballers. It trains -- some might say not very well and not in enough numbers -- coaches and helps them earn their licences for that very reason.

So what happens when those very same academies are packed with players who aren't English? When a club imports 16-year-olds in industrial quantities from overseas and they end up shunting out local youngsters who need to then get their footballing education elsewhere?

Adnan Januzaj left Anderlecht for Man United at the age of 16.
GettyImagesAdnan Januzaj left Anderlecht for Man United at the age of 16.

It's a topic which attracts copious amount of demagoguery. It's not hard to see why. Check out Arsenal's Academy page. Of the 29 players listed (including the five on loan), no fewer than 12 are foreigners. One of them is Alfred Mugabo, who is a Rwandan youth international and is a special case as he came to London at young age, so in terms of "traditional foreigners" we're talking 11. That means there are 11 English players who will not get the benefit of the high quality coaching at Arsenal. Eleven English guys who are playing somewhere else, most likely further down the food chain.

If they're good enough to emerge, they'll still emerge. But the reality is that there will be a knock-on effect and they won't necessarily receive the same level of preparation that they would have had at Arsenal. This isn't to pick on the Gunners. To varying degrees, you'll find comparable situations across the Premier League. Clubs carefully train kids from a young age, then, at 16, when they're supposed to be polished into top-flight calibre players, their path is blocked by guys brought in from overseas.

It's the same argument that's made writ large in the Premier League, with the number of foreigners. But in some ways this feels worse, because at least the English players forced down to the second-flight or sitting on the bench are fully formed professionals. They've had -- and continue to have -- their shot at the big time.

Here, we're talking about kids who are not yet fully developed. Being shut out of an academy at 16 because a slew of foreign kids has come in means finding somewhere else to play at a time when you're -- most likely -- still going to school, when you're not sure if you'll ever make it as a professional. Not only will you likely not get the same standard of training and development, it might double or triple your commute time. Your parents might figure it's not worth it. You may well drop out at this stage and, once you get off the conveyor belt to the top, it's tricky to get back on. What to do about this? This is one situation where, frankly, you can't blame FIFA. They make it very simple. If you are a minor (under the age of 18) you can't move abroad to play football, except in three special circumstances. Article 19 is pretty clear in that regard.

You can do it if your parents move for non-footballing reasons: a job, medical reasons, migration, whatever. Fair enough. You can do it if you live close to a border, continue to live at home and the club you join is no more than 30 miles from said border. And, you can do it -- with a few stipulations -- if you're moving within the European Union or the European Economic Area and you're at least 16. That last one is the problem.

It basically means that any club -- English or otherwise -- can poach the most gifted players from any other team in Europe as soon as they turn 16. And because in most cases you can't sign professional terms until you're 16 and before that you're an amateur without a binding contract, well, it means that, generally speaking, no matter how good you are, you effectively become a free agent (there's a formula for compensation, but it's a pittance) on your 16th birthday.

Kristoffer Olsson was 16 when Arsenal signed him from IFK Norrkoping for around £200,000.
GettyImagesKristoffer Olsson was 16 when Arsenal signed him from IFK Norrkoping for around £200,000.

That's why it's so easy for big clubs to raid the youth academies of their brethren across Europe. And that's how we end up with academy teams that, well, look a lot like Premier League ones: chockful of foreign players.

Adnan Januzaj provides the perfect case in point right now, plucked from Anderlecht by Man United at the age of 16 and lighting up the Premier League.

When it comes to the free movement of players in the top-flight, I'm something of an absolutist. I generally believe in the free market, that the cream rises to the top and that the increased competition for places makes those English players who do get playing time that much better and better prepared when facing quality opposition. That's why quotas aren't the answer at Premier League level.

Yet when it comes to 16 and 17 year olds, it's a different matter. These guys aren't still in their formative years as a footballer. Dropping down a level to get playing time is difficult or unrealistic in most cases. And when it does happen, there is often a drop-off in the quality of the coaching they receive.

FIFA did its bit, banning in almost all cases the transfer of minors. This is about the European Union and the free movement of players and unless the bureaucrats get off their backsides and decide that football ought to be an exception (or, to use their own words, sanction "football's specificity") and the transfers of minors is banned, the situation won't change.

Does it hurt the England team? Yes. (It also hurts the clubs who invested money in their development only to see them leave for virtually no compensation, but that's another issue.) Can the FA do something about it? Probably not. At best you could draft something urging clubs to voluntarily adopt limits and quotas at academy level. Or you could provide cash incentives (perhaps out of that giant Premier League TV money pot) to those whose academies have more English players.

But, frankly, both are wishful thinking.

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