By Lucien Betancourt
In the world of soccer, clubs tend to rise to the top because of their home-grown talent and the expert utilization of resources. Every successful club followed some form of the winning formula: a cast of young players join onto the team, revitalize an aging and depleted squad, rise to the top, and the cycle repeats.
In the sport, there are different soccer associations, all of which answer to larger continental federations, which in turn are all under the umbrella of FIFA. Every federation has a set of rules called Financial Fair Play, or FFP, which are in place in order to prevent clubs from overspending. This keeps leagues balanced and prevents clubs from getting into financial trouble. However, FFP also serves a different purpose: the preservation of football academies.
Every major soccer club in the world is more than just their pro team. They also have a B-team (also known as a reserve team) and their academy teams, which can range from Under-5 to Under-19 squads. Historically, teams have gained success from promoting youngsters from their academy team onto the senior squad. A prime example of this is FC Barcelona, who from 2009-2012, developed stars like Xavi and Iniesta alongside another homegrown talent: Lionel Messi. The best teams in the history of the sport typically have the best academies.
However, the English teams are the exception to this rule. But the reason for this is not talent– it’s style. The “English game,” put simply, is a style of play where players focus on finding space to cross the ball into the scoring box. In England, height reigns supreme, and there is more emphasis on crossing than the shorter passes and dribbling that dominate the world’s game. This is the reason why English clubs splurge on non-English players, because for decades, the English playstyle has proven to be simply less effective. This is also the reason why England often fails at winning in international tournaments. It is becoming clear that to win the trophy in England you have to buy non-English players. Elite club Manchester City’s squad currently consists of 24 players. Of those 24, only two come from their academy. 16 of the 24 are not English. And they just keep winning.
However, this puts into question the future. Constantly buying players – while leaving less room for academy development– means that the only path to success is more money. There is only so much money an owner can put in, and when it runs out, the only method is to look at academy graduates to supply the team. A good example of this is FC Barcelona in 2020. The team was in the depths of financial trouble, facing an insurmountable debt of 1 billion euros. They had to release a bunch of players, cut wages, and had to fill in these gaps with a bunch of youngsters. More recently, however, they went back to their lavish spending days, dumping heaps of cash for star players such as Jules Kounde, Lewandowski, and Raphinha. If you look at any club’s history since the 2000s, when player prices rose exponentially and there was more emphasis on purchases equaling success, they had to release their entire squad, rest for a year or two, purchase new players, and return to glory.
This method of success is slowly becoming more popular, but only for English teams. Other teams consist mainly of national players and academy graduates. There is emphasis on having a steady supply of players rather than a steady supply of funds for transfers. They value developing players and winning trophies rather than assembling a superteam. English teams have a sort of ignorance when it comes to seeing the success of other teams. They see themselves as the greatest for having the most coveted broadcasting rights, for having the most financially lucrative teams, and for having the biggest fan bases. Even then, teams who have these same luxuries, such as FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich, still rely heavily on academy teams and youth development.
The best solution for this is bringing the English teams back down to Earth by devaluing the transfer system. A salary cap on transfers is possible. Only 20 years ago, the most expensive transfer was €34 million. Reducing market caps, then compensating for this by lowering things like prices, concessions, and jerseys will end the reign of money in the sport. Everyone will be on a near-equal footing, like it was before the 2000s. In this case, a look into the past will provide the best solution for the present and the future. Only then will this transfer-dominated state of the sport end. But if this system continues, the best teams will only get bigger and bigger, and those who can’t catch up will suffer and fall further behind.