Adam Bate explains how the launch of the NextGen Series, dubbed the teenage Champions League, will help bridge the gap between youth football and the senior level
These are exciting times to be a young footballer coming through one of Europe's premier academies. This season has seen the launch of a new competition – the NextGen Series – pitting 16 of the continent's major clubs against each other in a teenage version of the Champions League. Spanish football expert Graham Hunter summed up the excitement best: "I find it impossible to understand why this brilliant but simple concept hasn't existed for years."
The hope is the competition will help bridge the gap from youth football to the senior game and prevent the development of young players being stifled at a key age. It is the brainchild of Mark Warburton, who took time out from his day job as Brentford's sporting director to create NextGen. Warburton explains: "Apart from an exceptional few who are capable of jumping straight into first teams, many promising academy graduates have not been provided with enough consistent high-quality challenges." That is something youngsters are sure to get in the NextGen Series. Teams involved in this season's competition include Barcelona, Ajax, Inter and Marseille. Celtic, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City provide the British entries.
Given the prestige of victory against famous opposition, the series could provide a competitive alternative for youth team graduates stuck in the twilight zone of reserve team football. Warburton adds: "The FA Youth Cup aside, English youngsters don't have enough competitive games. In many reserve fixtures the result isn't that important."
Getting into the routine of travelling Europe and playing significant football on a regular basis is vital in the professional game. Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany feels the benefits are obvious: "It is very important they get big games. This tournament gives them a chance to experience different styles of football. They'll learn from this and it will be a great help when they reach senior level."
The venture is proving a success, with several other big clubs set to join next season. Justin Andrews of NextGen said: "The clubs are being incredibly supportive. It has become bigger than we ever expected. This year was meant to be low-key, but we are already playing at a number of main stadiums."
However, the picture painted by tournament organisers ignores some legitimate concerns. The emphasis on results is an uneasy one. While Barcelona field 16-year-olds to aid their development, other teams have been selecting overage 19-year-olds. Barcelona coach Oscar Garcia explains: "Some teams have the idea that it's still about winning. For us it's about formation and learning."
There are also fears that the NextGen Series could widen the gulf between the elite teams and the rest. For all its critics, the Champions League does at least – on the face of it – operate with an entirely inclusive format. If you finish high enough in your European domestic league, you can earn the right to play in it. At present, there is no qualification for the NextGen Series – the tournament is not a meritocracy but rather a competition set up on an invitation-only basis.
This could have long-term implications in terms of standards and recruitment. It would be perfectly understandable for young talent to be attracted by the possibility of European football at such an age – and the organisers have a vested interest in propagating this notion of desirability. But while the competition remains invitation-only, this would surely represent an unhealthy distortion of the playing field.
There could be an even more significant consequence of the NextGen Series. The tournament went ahead in August without the official sanction of UEFA, who withdrew formal support after several major teams pulled out. If the competition continues to flourish, it would add weight to the notion that clubs can hold an internationally viable tournament without UEFA's direct involvement. Such an achievement would be noted in the boardrooms of the world's richest clubs.
Could it eventually give private investors and the clubs the confidence to launch a breakaway European super league? In truth, it is far too early to say. But the NextGen Series is a fascinating new venture – and one that is intriguing for even more reasons than its
supporters would have us believe.
From WSC 300 February 2012