Football is a funny game and what’s funnier is it’s market. Be it the gaucherie of spending over $100 million on one player or having 11 French players in the 23-man squad of an English club side – everything about it is plain amusing. But what looks amusing at first sight is not necessarily the same when we dig into it.
We’ve heard so many tales about the rich exploiting the poor. Football, my friend, is a glaring example. Let’s admit it, our beautiful game is not just a sport anymore, it’s a business. And the football market is nothing but a new playground for the shopaholics. They amuse the fans and bemuse UEFA by simply mocking the so called “Financial Fair Play”. A trick with no sleeve.
It was just a few days ago when I saw the trailer of a feature film called “The Class of ‘92”. It was a story of 6 working class boys who played football without a worry of the future. They loved the club they played for, they were proud of the crest that rested on the chest. They eventually went on to graduate, played for the senior team and in 1999, won the treble. They were Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Phil and Gary Neville and they played for Manchester United.
Just like the fruit that grows in your own backyard, the players that emerge from your own youth system are the sweetest. They grow up to become the face of the club. A face that represents the legacy. A face that can be called home. But then again, legacy is a heavy word and players crack under it’s pressure, more often than not. But it’s not just the players, but also the clubs that are the culprits.
The amount of players that are promoted to the first team through academy is miserably low for most of the clubs. Consider the Premier League, for instance. Arsenal have only two English graduates in their first team, namely – Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlein. Manchester City may have accumulated all the adroit foot-soldiers in the world, but the academy representation is again poor. Chelsea continue to buy players for fun and Josh McEachran continues to be loaned out. A prodigy of his sort deserves some wealthy recognition. I don’t even feel like discussing Tottenham anymore (though they have a far better representation that their rivals).
What the clubs need to realize is that football is not just about winning. It massively represents the legacy and the emotion that comes with it. Money can buy you players and also silverware in some cases, but it won’t buy you that legacy. The legacy that sets ordinary and the extraordinary apart. The state of football today is miserable, but like every other cloud, this one too has a few silver linings.
Crewe Alexandra FC, who play in the second tier of English football, continue to field a starting XI filled with academy products, something they are extremely proud of. Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and 5th placed Southampton also have amazing graduates coming out of their academies. And then Barcelona and Manchester United are in the league of their own.
Buying foreign players is not a crime. It is exactly what makes football a global phenomenon. But, when you realize that of all Premier league players only one-third are English, that’s when you start to ponder where the problem lies. Spain has a 59% Spanish player representation in La Liga, whereas Germany has 50% German representation in Bundesliga, thanks to their excellent youth system. So when Germany or Spain outplay England in the World Cup, don’t be surprised. The homework just wasn’t done.
The mantra to success is not to hope for an Arab billionaire to takeover, but it is to produce and nurture quality from the grass root level. What has been done can’t be undone, but the stepping stones could well be set up. Academy is the future.
Remember what Warden Norton said, “Salvation lies within”.