With the recent signing of Marco Asensio from Mallorca and the news that Norwegian starlet Martin Odegaard has been in Madrid training with Castilla, the question of whether Real Madrid really needs a youth academy has been debated in several forums. Arguments for and against the academy system are frequent, with opinions divided and individual views dependent largely on the size of the clubs themselves and what they are hoping to achieve. Are football clubs still looking to develop their own talent from within, or is there no need for the bigger clubs to have a home-grown development scheme if they have the financial clout to just sign players as and when required? Another question often discussed concerns the bigger clubs alone and asks whether they are simply signing all the most talented youngsters purely to prevent them from going anywhere else?
The whole debate about the foundation academies has been reignited with the recent publicity surrounding Madrid's signing from Real Mallorca, Marco Asensio. It appears that the plan is leave young Marco with the Balearic club for the time being until it is felt that he is able to slot into Madrid's first team. This was part of the deal in signing him, and suggests that he will continue to turn out for Mallorca as opposed to being promoted through the ranks via Real Madrid Castilla. It is this decision in particular that seems to have called into question the whole purpose of the foundation academy system. If young players are going to be signed and then either allowed to remain with their old clubs or be sent out on long term loans to other lower division clubs where they can play first team football - albeit temporarily although not in Real Madrid's colours - many would question the logic of having an academy system. Yet is it logical to take a player who is in a Segunda club's first team and ask him to play at a lower level than that where he was signed from? In Asensio's case it probably makes sense to leave him where he is, as a key player in Mallorca's first team, where he will gain more realistic senior experience.
It would appear that for the older age groups at least, more and more club managers are moving away from the whole foundation academy idea and are instead in favour of having promising youngsters playing first-team football on loan elsewhere as opposed to playing under-age football for the parent club. In England, where the ‘B' team system does not exist, Everton manager Roberto Martinez, and his predecessor the now Real Sociedad coach David Moyes, are among others known to support the Spanish system of having club ‘B' sides playing as first teams in lower divisions as opposed to the under-age system of the academies.
The argument in support of having sides like Real Madrid Castilla, Real Betis ‘B', Villareal ‘B' etc eventually replacing the current under-19 sides is simply that players are developing so much younger nowadays than they used to. Coaches are taking the view that at 16 - 18 years of age (or younger in many cases) these players should be playing regular first-team football and the feeling is that they just won't get the competitive experience they need to play at higher levels if all their football is played within the academies. The ‘B' team route is therefore seen as the preferred option for promising youngsters to gain valuable and regular first team experience.
This view, however, only applies to players in the older age groups of the academies; a completely different picture emerges when discussing the younger ages, say from 7 year olds upwards to 15 or 16 years. These are the youngsters for whom the academy system is in place to guide their development and perform the role for which the system was initially designed. When talking about the future of the ‘canteras', this younger age bracket is often confused with the older 18 - 19 year olds. With these younger age groups, this means that clubs can actually take responsibility for their own youngsters' footballing and physical development from an early age. Young players grow and develop at different rates both in a physical sense and in footballing abilities; therefore both of these need to be catered for and of course there is always the late developer to consider! Coming through the academy system, Real Madrid's young players will typically progress to the Real Madrid Castilla section of the club, graduating from under-age football towards integration within the professional game at senior level. Although it appears that this integration could potentially now involve gaining first-team experience elsewhere other than with the Castilla sides; being sent out on loan to other clubs means that developing players can be given valuable opportunity to experience competitive football at league level.
Another important aspect to consider when discussing the traditional academy foundation system is that of the educational needs of young players. This tends to be neglected when discussing the academies as the talk often centres on footballing abilities alone, but clubs do have a responsibility to address the welfare of the youngsters in their care. For years football clubs have churned out hundreds, if not thousands, of professional players who except for their footballing abilities are essentially unskilled workers with few employment prospects in the outside world. Gaining qualifications which are transferable to everyday society away from football is now an essential safety-net for youngsters to fall back on if they don't make it as professionals or if an injury ends their careers prematurely. In this respect, having an established foundation academy which provides appropriate educational policies allows clubs to encourage alternative professions or skills for those who may not make it into a full time career. This also provides the opportunity for the clubs to engage with their social responsibilities within their respective communities.
Coach development is another aspect hardly ever mentioned when discussing the academy foundation system. Yet there is an art to coaching at youth level and foundation coaches in general tend to be highly-experienced coaches who have been around the game for a long time. The specific role of an academy coach doesn't always suit everyone since the emphasis at under-age levels is more about education and footballing development as opposed to simply winning matches. This philosophy, therefore, doesn't always equate to the bigger clubs being the dominant forces at youth and academy level with the smaller clubs often being more successful in terms of results alone.
With the financial resources available to the big clubs today, a common question frequently asked is whether Real Madrid, Barca, Milan etc., really need an academy foundation programme at all? In fact, the majority of clubs such as Real Madrid would no doubt vote overwhelmingly in favour of retaining the academy system if asked and linking this in with ‘B' team football for the ‘older' players. Clubs view the foundation programmes as a solid investment for the future. When promising youngsters subsequently emerge from the ‘canteras' and successfully make the transition to full-time professionals, then the whole process is deemed worthwhile. If these players then go on to represent the parent club, even better; but if not then an incoming transfer fee will in turn help to fund the academy and this means that the club's investment in youth becomes justified from a purely business aspect.
There is no doubt the foundation academies produce a host of professional players who go on to make a good living from the game; even if they spend the majority of their careers playing at different clubs to the ones they started with. The current debate will continue and the arguments on both sides will be fuelled by the investment signings of Marco Asensio and Martin Odegaard if a deal is eventually struck.
Several questions remain unanswered, though, and if Madrid intends to sign players such as these and then send them elsewhere as opposed to RM Castilla, who is going to be ultimately responsible for their footballing development? Odegaard appears impressed by Zinedine Zidane - and who wouldn't be - but has a precedent been set with Asensio being allowed to stay in Mallorca? Will Martin Odegaard actually play in Castilla or does current thinking mean he will remain in Norway for the time being? Without any disrespect intended, surely Castilla is the better option.