We spoke to several high-profile coaches to learn how the UEFA Youth League is paving the way for players to make the grade at the very top of the game.
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The UEFA Youth League final takes place this week with some of European football's best young players going head to head when Benfica meet Real Madrid.
The action takes place at Colovray Stadium, Nyon a short walk from UEFA’s Swiss headquarters and the venue for all remaining games in the competition.
Since its inception in 2013, the Youth League has provided a platform for the stars of tomorrow to test their skills against Europe’s best Under-19 talents, offering unique international experience and competition matches while reducing the gap between clubs’ youth and senior teams.
We asked a number of high-profile coaches why the Youth League is such a key stepping stone on the path to senior success.
Sir Alex Ferguson: legendary former Manchester United and Aberdeen manager, who is now a UEFA coaching ambassador
“I think the important thing about it is you’re giving young players the opportunity to see how they handle being away from home, travelling with the first team - most of them are doing that, seeing how they behave themselves and seeing how they interact with players from different cultures.
“This is really important and it’s an absolutely huge success. You also, as a coach, have to embrace the idea of a production line of young players to give them futures and also to give foundations to your football club.
“That supply of talent coming into the first team, which then means that if you have a good supply; and you’re giving them the proper education to be footballers; and you give them the experience of playing in the Youth League, then you don’t need to always go and buy. You’ve got the loyalty base there, because the kids will always remember the coach who gave them an opportunity in the first team. They’ll always remember their first journey into Europe. These are all important factors, in terms of what the Youth League is about.”
Fabio Capello: UEFA Champions League-winning former AC Milan, Real Madrid and AS Roma coach, who also led England and Russia
“I think it’s very important for players to take part in this tournament, as they have to face different teams with different players, who play a different style of football and have a different mindset, too. Travelling all around Europe, you improve your knowledge and have to face a different level of competition, a different pace and a different style of football. So these are very important moments to improve individually as a player.
“I would have liked it a lot. The most important tournament I took part in back then was the Viareggio tournament, which was the most important international competition of the time, with teams from all over Europe. But this is even more important, because the players have the opportunity to meet top teams from very important academies from all over the world.”
Jason Wilcox: Manchester City academy director
“I think the opportunity is to play teams with different cultures, different styles, different environments. The opportunity is huge. One thing that we always say is that our development programme, it’s not all about “win at all costs” at academy level, but there are going to be times when we have to put the boys under a little bit more pressure to go and win.
“If the boys can’t handle the pressure of playing in a [UEFA Youth League] semi-final, they’ve got no chance of handling the pressure in a senior Champions League final, which is what the ultimate aim is. So, it’s all part of the journey, all part of the experience.”
Filippo Inzaghi: coached AC Milan in the competition during the 2013-14 campaign, becoming the club’s first team coach a year later
“The Youth League was an extraordinary experience for the lads and me. It was a fantastic competition. It gave my players the chance to really grow. They were able to take on opponents from different cultures. We were given a very tough group with Barcelona, Ajax and Celtic from which we managed to qualify. I carry fond memories with me from that tournament and I am convinced that the Youth League was fundamental in the continuing development of my players.
“I hope that the fact that they competed with such strong teams from different cultures has enriched them on a personal level in terms of their self-belief. I hope that it will turn out to be an important step for them in their future careers.”
Joe Edwards: Chelsea assistant first-team coach who led the club to UEFA Youth Leaue finals in 2018 and 2019
“As coaches, we’re the same as the players. We’re always looking to improve and develop. The more variety we can get in terms of what we’re coming up against, the better.
“Our youth teams have got a good track record for winning competitions, which I think says a lot about the way we develop our teams and the way we coach.
“Many of those players who have played in Nyon before in the UEFA Youth League semis and finals are out in the senior game doing well.
“When I look at them in the dressing room, they’re definitely better for the journeys that they’ve had, the big games they’ve played in. I don’t look at them now, when we’re going out on a Champions League night or a big Premier League game, and worry that they’re maybe a bit nervous, that they might freeze.
“In fact, I even remember standing out on the pitch at Ajax in the away game [in October 2019], as soon as we arrived at the stadium, and I caught the eye of Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham sort of looking around the stadium, and then looking at each other and smiling, as if to say: ‘This is what we’re here for, this is what we worked all those years for’.
“Those three boys I just mentioned would have… gone through the whole journey of the UEFA Youth League for at least two years, all the way to the final, lifting the trophy - having that amount of experience at a young age, that confidence of winning, definitely helped.
“If we’re sending kids out now into the stadiums at Ajax and the Mestalla, and they hadn’t even travelled and played in games like that, it definitely would be a bigger challenge for them. So, it’s been a fantastic journey that those boys have gone on, and we’ve seen the rewards for it now.”
Andoni Zubizarreta: Former Spanish goalkeeper who has been director of football at both Barcelona and Marseille
It seems to be a very interesting competition, which allows… youth players to play on the European stage as well. They get to know and experience a competition on a European level, which is different to their domestic league competition.
“They are different matches, in different conditions, and with different playing styles. And it’s against teams you are not used to playing against. So that is a motivation for a player, the players get to know different cultures and different stadiums and pitches and situations which they can then compare their level with. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes worse, and there are things you like to copy. It is good to experience the world of football in a more global and a more general way. Learning from other teams and other players is something very interesting.”