What does it take to succeed in a soccer academy?

soccer academy, Vietnam
Boys wait for their turn to demonstrate their football-playing skills during a recruitment held by HAGL-Arsenal JMG Academy in Vietnam in 2009.  (Photo by HOANG DINH NAM/AFP via Getty Images)

Life in soccer academies is understandably filled with challenges and stringent procedures, and the chance of even the most talented players springing up and breaking into the mainstream could be quite a difficult proposition.

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The desire to make it to the pros through a soccer academy can be confounded by coaches who throw everything at a young player without thought to development.

That, coupled with the trend of recruiting seasoned mercenaries for openings, makes it all the more arduous for these raw, young athletes.

”You’re talking about a lot of kids chasing very, very few options, popular Scottish journalist and Sky Sports presenter Jim White once pointed out.

One of the problems with the academy system is that its ethos, basically, is to throw enough (stuff) against the wall and hope that some of it sticks,” said White, who is also the author of Youll Win Nothing with Kids. They take in 30 or 40 kids at (age) 8, knowing fully well that the chances of any of them becoming footballers is pretty unlikely. The trouble is, those kids come in at 8 thinking they already are footballers.” 

While it is nearly impossible to deduce whether a young child could be the next Clint Dempsey or Megan Rapinoe, the desperation of many clubs to perform at a continuously elite level has pushed them into recruiting less-talented youth to what they previously had signed. 

But then, while the problems that come with nurturing minors remain, it is important to note that affording them some level of freedom seems to unleash their highest level of potential, as Tim O’Keeffe, former manager of Liverpool Schoolboys, stressed in the case of a certain 11-year-old Wayne Rooney. 

“He was very unassuming and quiet. You can’t shut some boys up, but he was the opposite and would only speak when spoken to,”  O’Keeffe said.

“He could be infuriating at times, not for any disciplinary reasons but from a coaching point of view,” O’Keeffe said. “One day we were playing at Penny Lane and Wayne broke through on goal. We had three against one but, while the coaches shouted at him to give it wide, some of the parents shouted at him to take the defender on. He did neither. He looked up and chipped the ball into the net from 25 yards. There’s no way he should have attempted something as audacious as that, but Wayne had so much belief in his own ability that sometimes you had to forget the coaching book and just admire the skill. A coach said to me once: ‘You can’t coach what God left out. God left nothing out with Wayne.'”

While many top-flight coaches are less inclined to teach young players what is expected — at that level, it is assumed that players know what to do — neglecting youth in favor of established names has its flaws, as O’Keeffe observed with Rooney. 

Rooney has gone on to become England’s record goal-scorer along with starring for the Old Trafford outfit where he made his name, winning almost every honor in English, European and Continental football.

One key advantage of starting off a professional career in an academy is that the athlete gets to play as much football as possible at a tender age: often a minimum of three hours training a week at age 8 and five hours for 12- to 16-year-olds. The time is spent passing, changing paces and moving with the ball while guiding and keeping it in position, learning set pieces and finishing, and then repeating the process over and over again. Experts believe this to be the right type of training for youngsters, as the system and the skills involved will become ingrained in the muscles.  

What are the major problems coaches face while grooming youngsters in football academies?

Due to some recent restrictions enforced by FIFA in the Financial Fair Play plan, most clubs have been forced to move toward youth development, making greater use of their owned academies. This is becoming more of a necessity than merely an option that they pay more attention to the youth on their books. Though this change in focus has reaped some measure of dividends for some, getting the best out of these young athletes is not without hitches.

Here is a look at some of these factors that influence player development at an early stage.

Resilience level and ability to cope with setbacks: Imagine how a teenager would feel when told that he will not be receiving a scholarship deal after his developmental years in a club’s academy. It is not just momentarily depressing, it could have grave effects on the athlete.  David Conn, in his column for The Guardian once told the story of how such devastating news drove a shattered player to a tragic ending. 

While there can be such stories as Conn illustrated, there have also been success stories. For example, sometimes an athlete who was not highly rated at youth level eventually makes it with a bigger side. 

This means that these young ones vary greatly in how they cope with setbacks and the problems associated with having to prove themselves, and it is only those with the best of mental strength and emotional competence who win.

Intelligence: Coaches observe that a young athlete who has shown glimpses of sport intelligence will be more likely to pay better attention to details than his mates. While this quality is most often purely natural, decent grooming and top-notch coaching have been said to work wonders, and rightly so.

Some young athletes who just “get it” faster than their peers. Coach Antonio Riccardi experienced this with Kylian Mbappe at AS Bondy U-13s: “The first time I coached him was when he was six years old. Just a few months after he had started playing here for the debutants age group, you could tell he was different. Kylian could do much more than the other children. His dribbling was already fantastic and he was much faster than the others.

“He was the best player I’ve ever seen in 15 years coaching here. Nobody has even come close. In Paris there are many talents but I’d never seen a talent like him. He was what we call a ‘craque’ (the best).”

Goal-oriented and sport-specific attributes: The idea of nurturing youngsters to stardom is precisely for the long term, and to that effect, certain goal-oriented qualities such as passion for the game and professional attitude, as well as sport-specific ones like coachability and competitiveness, are key.

Working with teenagers can give a coach fits as some young players are reactive rather than proactive. For instance, eagle-eyed coaches will usually be quick to spot that kid who will carry the ball with elan and purpose, and the other one who, though talented, would rather showboat than influence the game in one split second.

Awareness and self-belief: Little Serena has seen Ada Hegerberg pull off some kind of tricks that she isn’t quite sure she can manage. Not for lack of trying though. She had done such flicks and feints a couple of times before but the ball simply would not stick, instead bouncing awkwardly and away from her control. But then she gets to training that very morning and on the break tries the move again. Sure enough, she outwits her marker easier than she imagined.

Picture that scenario playing in a young athlete’s mind — that sinking feeling when she tries a thing or two that she had watched the game’s elites do, but the move fails.  This will no doubt impact the player. 

Her coach’s positive handling of this can be particularly instructive to the young player.

What do scouts look for in young players when they go scouting?

It is a common sight to see emissaries from top professional sides throng a park or a training field with the hope of spotting a talented kid or two who will fit perfectly into a project.  These talent hunters are seasoned and have their ways of knowing things.

Technique: The very first thing I look for in a football player is his first touch and close control,” Manchester United’s chief recruitment officer, Geoff Watson, once said“With some boys, their second touch is a tackle! Good players have their heads up, receive the ball and are looking to make the next pass straight away. It’s down to natural ability.”

Such technical aptitude is one of the first things most top scouts will want to see in a player. The player’s ability to keep close control of the ball even when harried and hassled, as well as to make crucial decisions with it, are all vital components.

Pace: Athletes are expected to be a tad quicker in their movements, on and off the ball, in order to really catch the scout’s eyes. A player who uses pace is revered in the modern game, as he will bail out his team a lot quicker by carrying the ball further up the pitch. When he is on the break, his opponent is on its heels. 

Temperament and character: History is filled with less-than-stellar careers of exceptional players who simply couldn’t make it big, not for the lack of talent but for the absence of discipline and mentality. One could say Mario Balotelli, for instance, is an amazing player, but there can be no hiding that his inability to exert control over his temper has done him little good.

In teens, such misdemeanors can be redirected by the coaches as it is much easier to get the player to change such bad-tempered ways at that early stage. Nobody wants to have that kid who will sulk and rave the whole day or even beyond because he was withdrawn for another player, or will even pick a fight with a mate who went in rather hard with an inadvertent challenge while in training.

Emmanuel Chinaza is an international sports media guru who was featured on The Scuffed Soccer Podcast leading up to the 2019 U-20 World Cup