Every year we see so many players climb the ranks at huge clubs like Manchester United, Ajax and Barcelona and cement their place in the starting eleven which in result gives hope to so many aspiring academy players that they could very well be the next in line and play for their favorite clubs and maybe one day represent their country at the international stage.
How difficult is it to become a professional footballer?
According to a research conducted by The English FA at the end of 2015 (“Football Talent Spotting: Are Clubs Getting It Wrong with Kids?”), the former FA Head of Talent Identification, Richard Allen revealed that less than 0.5% of the players aged under 9 that are signed by professional teams, go all the way to play for the first team at some point in their life.
If we dive deep into these numbers released by FA, we can actually come to the conclusion that only a single player from more than 200 players make it to the top flight of football. These numbers are not only devastating for young aspiring players, but also shows a fundamental problem with the system being piloted throughout England and other countries.
There are so many professional players that were rejected by academies at a young age because of reasons other than their football abilities.
The biggest one we came through was Ronaldo Nazario not being given a second chance by one of the biggest clubs in Brazil, Flamengo despite having an excellent first trial with them just because he was unable to afford the fare for the hour long bus ride for the practice.
It is even terrifying to think of the fact that a player that is idolized by legends of the game like Zlatan Ibrahimović would never have made it to the big leagues if he wasn’t offered an amateur contract by a struggling club in the suburban Rio de Janeiro called Sao Cristovao.
That’s how difficult it is to actually achieve your dream of being a professional football player because you can’t make it all the way just with the help of your playing ability, and the question arises:
what else do you need?
Current academy scouting systems and rate of success
In the last decade of football, the scouting systems of so many football clubs have seen a complete revamp due to advancement in technology, especially in the field of Machine Learning.
The scouts are now using advanced tools that help them not only analyze players but allow them to bring data and information on each and every player they scout in a single place which makes their job a lot easier when they are comparing these players. This allows them to make data driven decisions and reach smarter conclusions at the end of the day.
Timon Pauls, the former Director of Football and Chief Scout of Bayern Munich revealed in an interview with the Professional Football Scouts Association that in the current ecosystem of football, the teams are assessing players not only on their technical abilities, but their physical development, mentality, speed and weather if there is a role currently at the club they can fit in the foreseeable future.
At the end of the day there might only be one player in 100,000 that is able to pass all of those tests and despite advancements in the scouting department, a very important thing you need on your side is luck. In fact, one study found that, if success is measured by wealth, then the most successful people are almost certainly those with moderate talent and remarkable luck.
At grassroots level of football, the scout’s still mostly use eye test as their initial tool to assess players, which is a huge problem. Two or more people can watch the same game but come to a different conclusion due to their game knowledge and experience in the field and unfortunately for these very young kids, they might miss out on a better opportunity.
In recent years we have seen various professional clubs changing how they operate and have made youth teams that are almost signing players to play for their Under-5 or Under-6 squads. This in turn makes things a lot worse than they already are, because fundamentally we are increasing the input of the raw talent but aren’t taking the proper steps in between this level and the amateur contract level of football to make it sustainable.
Michael Calvin, who is a huge critic of the current youth football system present in England, states that the matters are a lot worse than what FA recognizes and informs people about. Only 180 of the current 1.5 million players playing in the underage level will have a chance to play in the Premier League if we analyze the data and previous trends followed by the clubs.
We could theoretically think of it as a volcano that we are constantly filling with lava because eventually this will create a chain reaction and most of that lava will fall out of the volcano itself.
The volcano is the current system in place and that erupting lava is the majority of aspiring youth football players.
The biggest issue for boys rejected from professional academies
Aaron Morgan, a former QPR and Watford academy player that was unable to make it professional in football, said “There are hundreds of boys across the country, being set up to fail”. The statement is theoretically true because every transfer window, most Premier League clubs overlook their young academy graduates and instead spend multi millions of pounds on fully formed stars.
A study in 2015 by Dr David Blakelock of Teesside University found 55% of players were suffering ‘clinical levels of psychological distress’ 21 days after being released from an academy.
In March 2013, a former academy player killed himself after facing severe mental health issues following his release from a Premier League club’s academy and it was revealed in an interview with his family they learnt that the player was a bright and fun child before his release. It is quite clear that players that are released from these art of the state facilities end up in scrappy ground football which takes a huge toll on their mental health, and future career.
In England, Godfrey K.Torto, a former Chelsea academy player who played at the same time as John Terry and Jordi Morris, is actively working to counter this growing problem. Godfrey in his amateur days was an aspiring striker but was unable to make it all the way due to a number of factors. He now runs the Ask Godders Football Academy in West London to help young players recognize how difficult it is to play football professionally and guide them towards their dream having experienced the highs and lows of the system himself.
An Academy famous for helping players who weren’t able to make it big with youth football has only succeeded in getting two players signed for former Premier League clubs in almost eight years.
In an interview with GOAL, Godfrey told that he occasionally got calls from parents asking them to help their kids who were released from their clubs without being offered a contract at amateur levels despite playing for the club since their childhood, and that was the motivation behind the creation of Ask Godders Football Academy.
This shows how difficult it is to not only make the top flight of football but then stay there.
Success out of professional academy system
Players after being released from their academies often participate in trials around the country but rarely make out a sustainable career out of it. Even if they are successful in their attempts, they end up playing in the lower leagues which obviously pay them for their time with the team, but when they are eventually released, they are left with no real skill and not enough money to live comfortably.
The wage gap between the top level of football and the lower leagues is enormous, and according to a leaked report, in League Two of England, the best players are often paid around 2000 pounds per week.
If we take a look at a research conducted by CIES Football Observatory in 2017, we can actually see the decline in the number of players from the academies playing for the first team.
They divided the study into four different groups of players:
The first group was the club trained players that spent more than three years with the team while they were somewhere between 15 to 21 years old.
The second group was Under 21 and included players that hadn’t spent their 22nd birthday yet.
The third group was expatriates, which were the players playing in a foreign club away from their home and
the fourth group were recent arrivals which consisted of the players that were present in the first team for less than one year.
The study found that at the beginning of the amount analysed (2010), the domestic league during which teams were the foremost reluctant to field club-trained players was the Italian Serie A (5.5% of minutes).
When this research was released, it was within the English Premier League where this category of footballers had the smallest amount of playing time (6.1%).
On the opposite hand, the Spanish Liga (21.6%) and therefore the French Ligue 1 (20.6%) accounted for the very best values.
Real Sociedad and Athletic Club Bilbao had 71.5% of domestic minutes played by their own club trained players and show the culture and philosophy of these clubs while AFC Bournemouth and Watford FC had just had 0.1 and 0.2% minutes played by their club trained players.
Another study by the Faculty of Sports and Health Sciences, Technical University Munich, Germany, highlighted the fact that the majority of players from the Youth Academy entered the Academy no later than U17:
- 66.7% of first-league players enrolled in youth academies when they were 15 years old or younger,
- 42.8% were 13 or younger when recruited,
- 25.7% were younger than 11 years of age and,
- even 7 players out of the 36, that managed to reach the top flight of German football, began their careers at a youth academy in the youngest age group U9.
These young players should definitely get more chances in less intense matches rather than one time (exit) trials so they get opportunities to prove their worth without the immense pressure of putting the team in jeopardy.
But, in the volatile environment football is being played these days, every team wants results and will do anything to achieve that, even if it’s at the cost of the next generation of aspiring players.
The main takeaway from this is that teams in the top flight are beginning to scatter away from placing more trust in their academy players.
Past success rates in professional football academy system
If we wish to look for instances where this trusting in youth approach was successful, we need to look no further than the Pep Guardiola era Barcelona; it was considered one of the best teams in history and one of the two teams to ever win six major trophies in a year.
This team consisted mostly of academy graduates; the most notable amongst these were Xavi and Iniesta who are considered two of the greatest midfielders of all time. Now that Barcelona is in decline and experiencing a financial crisis due to signing players for huge sums of money is plaguing the structure of the entire club, it might even help to revert back to the days of giving importance to academy players.
Athletic Club Bilbao is another example that highlights the importance of local players. They have a strict only “Basque Region” players policy that made them miss out on so many players like Diego Forlan and Gonzalo Higauin who even had their ancestors from Basque. They were not eligible because they weren’t directly related to the region and weren’t part of their academy at youth football level.
Despite all of this, they are the only club alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona that has never been relegated from top flight football in Spain.
If other clubs also start giving more recognition to their academy players instead of only signing big names, it might help nurture more talent and give aspiring footballers a chance of fulfilling their dream of playing in the top flight but more importantly level the playing field for not only club level football, but also international football itself.
It is very difficult to actually succeed at the highest level of football
We are in an era where so many players are being given false hope of becoming a professional football player later on in their life. The clubs are exploiting these young kids by making them compete against each other for limited spots in the team, creating an environment where only the best of the best survive and the rest are left behind without any real control over their future.
In such a tough environment where these young players are scrutinized by the coaches they are playing with, they might fall into the pit where various other factors outside of the game like homesickness, or not properly handled injuries play a role in their bad performances that eventually become the primary cause of them being released from these clubs.
Unfortunately, at the moment the counter measures to deal with this growing problem are in very early stages and not given a lot of attention by professional clubs. The only choice for aspiring football players is to work hard not only on their physical skills but also work on mental traits to stand out among their competition.
If you got luck on your side then you could very well be the next Jadon Sancho or Marcus Rashford, but you have got your whole life in front of you and relying on something like luck won’t be a wise choice unless you have something else going on in your life that will help you have a safe and stable future ahead of you.