Spain have just won their third consecutive major title: Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012. They have played intricate football under Vincente Del Bosque and previous manager Luis Aragones who have adopted, like many managers in the continent, ‘tika-taka’ or total football. First derived when Cruyff returned to Spain as Barcelona Manager in 1988, he gave the first orders to regenerate La Masia as not only a youth system but a school to teach the knowledge of total football. Cruyff understands this power of being taught real football from a young age as a graduate from the Ajax Academy. This is the power of youth football and if you are able to find the key to unlock this potential then you will be reaping the rewards for a long time...
Every football fan knows the iconic Ajax Academy and the stars of football they have produced in past years including the aforementioned Johan Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp and many more who I will continue to mention. Nicknamed ‘Godenzonen’ or ‘Sons of the Gods’, it truly was the holy grail to grow and build your knowledge of the footballing world. In recent times it has come to be dwarfed by the superior quality that is been produced further south in the Catalonian town of Barcelona and its ‘La Masia’ Academy. It is sad that such a powerful production line of talent has slowed due to the clubs financial problems, but, it is not over yet and is still a far better school of football than what we can see in the U.K. Ajax state that they strive for the way they play football to be recognisable yet central within the club is the style of play (4-3-3), training, behaviour and house rules. This is very similar to La Masia and how Cruyff has instigated his philosophy on the Barcelona youth system. Pep Segura, a former technical director of Barcelona, attributes the clubs success on its ‘philosophy of play’ and states: "It is about creating one philosophy, one mentality, from the bottom of the club to the top". The Ajax Academy has more recently produced the likes of Maarten Stekelenburg and Gregory van der Wiel who both have 50 and 35 caps for the Netherlands respectively. Yes we can say, “there still producing great players so what’s the problem?”, but the problem is letting these talents go. Ajax pay so much attention to these young footballers, then see them blossom in to huge talents before being let down by the clubs financial problems. The club are making money out of selling these talents but it looks weak. Of the current ‘Oranje’ regulars, six came through the Ajax Academy, yet only one has stayed and plays for the Ajax first team. The rest who can be named as: van der Vaart, Sneijder, Heitinga, de Jong and Stekelenburg have all moved to other European teams for a combined fee of around €49 million. Many of these names go on to move clubs again for even larger fees. However, La Masia, doesn’t havethis problem. They continue to produce great players and continue to hold on to these players.
A list of the graduates of La Masia reads a who’s who in world football and sometimes Spain’s starting 11. On 11 July 2010, Spain won the World Cup final with eight players from Barcelona; seven were from La Masia, and six of them were in the starting line-up: Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets, and Pedro Rodríguez. Former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola stated "The player who has passed through La Masia has something different to the rest, it's a plus that only comes from having competed in a Barcelona shirt from the time you were a child." It is more than an education at La Masia, it does become a way of life when your involved in such a formidable club team. Like I said previously, La Masia don’t have a problem holding on to their players, 11 graduates were in the team that won the Champions league in 2011. Yes, Barcelona don’t have the same financial problems that Ajax face but you should always have pride in your creations and show more to convince them to stay. There is an exception to this rule that shows Barcelona did make a couple of mistakes when releasing players and lucky for them they have the finances to rectify them. They sold Gerard Pique to Manchester United and Cesc Fabregas to Arsenal before bringing them back to the first team at Barcelona. Ajax have been unable to do the same as their youth system competitors. La Masia is one of the most expensive youth systems in the world at around €5 million a year but if you keep turning out talent such as Messi, Busquets and Jordi Alba then in my view it is money well spent.
In contrast, where is the U.K.’s La Masia or Ajax Academy? The most talent to come through an English football academy is either Manchester United who produced the likes of Beckham, Giggs, the Neville brothers and Scholes or perhaps West Ham more recently coming out with Lampard, Cole, Ferdinand and Carrick. This is the affect it has on their international teams winning or losing at tournaments. Spain with all its recent glory and England with their mediocre quarter-final exits. The U.K. need a serious think about how they are producing the new age of footballers. England cannot go on thinking they can win a major tournament without looking at where their footballers are coming from and how they are being developed. The F.A. love to talk about developing grassroots football but what are these young players being taught? I doubt, like many of you, they are being taught about respect, creative football and football philosophy. This may seem a high level of teaching for youngsters but it has worked for other countries so why not the U.K? The high levels of expectations do not follow the low level of football development. This is a huge problem when so many are trying to cover up the weakness yet not fix the problem. How longer will countries go on to make better international squads because their F.A and club teams have invested strongly in youth football?