Talking Italian

Despite the big-name signings, native players have always been the majority in Serie A, thanks in part to a highly developed youth structure. Matthew Barker reports on how “chicks” grow into “cadets”

The recent press panic that foreign players “as young as 16” were joining Premier League squads and enjoying the benefits of youth-team set-ups at the expense of home-grown talent was a little misleading. Certainly compared with their English counterparts, the average Italian 16-year-old will have been part of a centralised, dedicated training programme for at least four or five years, and many will already be fairly attuned to the notion of being a professional footballer. Foreign imports, particularly South American, may still feature prominently in the upper echelons of the Italian game, but last season 73 per cent of players in Serie A were home-grown, nearly twice the number in the Premier League.

The core structure of Italian football’s youth development operates both at its highest levels and its most cheerfully amateur incarnation, and has been in place since the mid-1970s, though its organisation and philosophy dates back to the early 1960s. There are five age groups: the pulcini (chicks) for eight- and nine-year-olds; esordienti (newcomers), aged ten-11; giovanissimi (very young) aged 12-13; allievi (cadets) aged 14-15; and finally the primavera (spring), players aged 16-19 and likely to include a number of foreign players. The primavera is the closest equivalent of the English reserves; basically an out-of-favour player – or more likely one recovering from injury – can play a primavera game to help them regain fitness, but the number of non-youth players is restricted.

The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) also oversees the piccoli amici (little friends) programme, for six- to eight-year-olds. Even at this most basic of levels, where the majority of kids are packed off for after-school and weekend football practice as a cheap means of child-minding (kicking a ball about in the streets is also a lost art in Italy), proceedings are carefully regulated and coaches monitored. Children of both sexes attend a local scuola di calcio, playing five-a-side games, for 15 minutes a half, under FIGC guidelines. There are some 6,800 such schools, covering the six-to-12 age group, with 171 of those operating as advanced centres and a further three – in Rome, Tirrena and Catania – run as scuole calcio federali, where the more promising youngsters develop their skills (for a €450 (£300) joining fee), often watched by scouts from professional clubs.

Clubs in Italy’s top two divisions will have at least one youth team for each birth year from the age of eight onwards. Generally pulcini play seven-a-side, increasing gradually up to the full 11 by the giovanissimi level, and all teams play in small (ten-to-14 clubs) regional leagues, expanding to national group stages and cup competitions as the age groups progress. The primavera, made up of Serie A and B clubs (with some C1 and C2 sides on request, usually familiar names fallen on hard times) began in 1962. The Campionato Nazionale Dante Berretti is for C1 and C2 clubs of the same age range although, confusingly, A and B clubs will sometimes enter their under‑19 teams.

Plenty will no doubt balk at the thought of “coaching” kids as young as six, but the intention isn’t to establish a conveyor belt of brainwashed bambini; on the contrary. While the regulations and arrangement of leagues and cup competitions are run within the strictest of parameters, the emphasis is still emphatically on enjoyment, on nurturing enthusiasm for the game naturally, as well as encouraging individual abilities and technique. Actual tactics aren’t even begun to be taught until players reach the age of 14.

Players become accustomed to being in a sporting environment, an important cultural shift that by and large sees a degree of maturity and pragmatism begin to kick in around the mid-teen mark. At Inter (whose youth system is run by former player Giuseppe Baresi – brother Franco runs the AC Milan set-up), coaches, goalkeeping coaches, athletics coaches, doctors, physiotherapists and team managers are assigned to each age group at the club’s Interello complex, on the outskirts of Milan, while a link with a college in the city allows older players to keep up with their education.

Both Milanese clubs are keen to increase the number of youth players coming through the ranks and on up into the first-team squad (though Inter still appear a little reluctant to put their faith in Italian youngsters: midfielder Luca Santonocito was plucked from their primavera squad by Celtic last month). It’s a sign of the times perhaps, but Roma, with their native Italian spine, are fast becoming the model for others to follow, with a spate of recent press stories praising the giallorossi’s bright young things and the club’s prudence in the transfer market. Spending big on star names will doubtless continue, but in Serie A the kids are alright.

From WSC 248 October 2007