DUBAI // Europe's leading football clubs have expressed disappointment following the suspension of the embryonic NextGen Series, the continent's youth development league. Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar had all been courted for sponsorship in recent months, but the deadline for funding has passed with no deal materialising.
Mark Warburton, co-founder of the series, which started in 2011 and has featured the likes of Inter Milan, Barcelona and Chelsea, said the outcome was a serious blow for youth football. Previous self-funded iterations of the tournament have showcased the talents of players such as Tony Watt, Raheem Sterling, and Viktor Fischer.
“It's a tragedy that an event that has been so embraced by the clubs and has been so instrumental in elite youth development is unable to find the right partners to take it forward,” Warburton told The National.
Last year, Watt scored for Celtic's first team against Barcelona during the Champions League group stages, while Sterling and Fischer are now regulars at Liverpool and Ajax.
“We have developed a good relationship with the clubs and they trust us,” Warburton added. “If we hold off and say it might happen this week or that week, it looks amateurish and we run the risk of losing their respect. I'm not willing to do that and I would far rather suspend it for a season.”
The Englishman visited the Gulf region earlier this year, but returned home empty-handed after being seemingly misled by contacts quick to over-promise and under-deliver. The result is the 2013-14 season will not run and the likes of Liverpool, Sporting CP and Inter Milan will not compete in European football at youth level.
“We were told Abu Dhabi was very keen, but you never know if it's genuine,” Warburton added. “You have to speak to the decision-makers and, unfortunately, there are too many people who claim to be connected yet probably have nothing to do with the powers that be.
“It's the players who will suffer. If you are Tottenham – I know the guys very well and it's an outstanding club with a fantastic academy and youth team – what do they now do? Last season, they were playing Barcelona and Sporting Lisbon, now what do they do? Sure they can organise matches with European teams, but the beauty of NextGen was it had a competitive edge.”
European football's governing body will this season launch the Uefa Youth League. However, billed as an Under-19's Champions League, it is only open to clubs whose first team have qualified for Europe's elite competition. Aston Villa, whose youth team won the NextGen Series last year but first team finished 15th in the Premier League, will resultantly miss out. So too will the previous year's winners, Inter Milan, whose first team finished ninth in Serie A.
“We're bitterly disappointed by this and we feel let down,” Bryan Jones, Aston Villa's academy director said. “The [NextGen] organisers have worked hard to secure a sponsor for the tournament, but the deadline has passed without success and therefore we're left with this highly unsatisfactory situation.
“The competition is one of the greatest development tools for young professional players in this country, providing as it does elite competition against some of the best clubs around Europe, and it will be lost to us this season. It's shameful and it's hugely disappointing.”
Anderlecht will compete in this year's Uefa Youth League after the first team won the Belgian Pro League, yet a source at the club said there was a preference to continue with NextGen. He explained the reasoning was two-fold: First, NextGen caters to players knocking on the door of the first team rather than Under-19 potential, and second, involvement is guaranteed regardless of the first team's performances.
Several clubs focus on youth as a club strategy, developing talent before selling them on for high transfer fees that can be reinvested in the squad, he added.
“NextGen is about developing youth, whereas Uefa is about showing off the youths at good first team clubs,” the Anderlecht official said. “If your first team is not in the CL group stages, you will not be in the Uefa Youth League. It's a different vision; a different angle. I do not blame Uefa for their set-up, but it is less interesting, that is the reality.”
Warburton took calls from several high-profile clubs yesterday and will meet with them next week to discuss the next step. He said the best clubs are planning three or four years in advance, but without the guarantee of European football their strategy is severely affected.
“I would hope people will hear about NextGen suspending the series and see it as a damning indictment of youth football,” he said, adding he is not yet ruling out Middle East investment, however having had his fingers burnt once already is remaining cautious.
“It' a fantastic product, engaging with 24 of the biggest clubs in Europe, but it's about finding the right financial partner to take it forward. To me it makes perfect sense. There is so much negative press in the UK just now about the World Cup in Qatar and whether it it going to be in the summer or the winter. Why not bring NextGen to the region and show what's possible?
“The kids playing in the NextGen today will be in their absolute prime in 2022; they will be the stars of that World Cup, so why not take them there now?”