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UEFA Youth League continues to shape Europe’s next generation

The UEFA Youth League has played a significant role in the development of European football, with more than 1,000 young players now having graduated to senior UEFA club competitions.

AC Milan via Getty Images

Since its establishment in 2013, the UEFA Youth League has provided an important platform for the best young footballers across Europe. By offering more competitive games against top-quality opposition, the Youth League gives players essential experience of international competition and reduces the gap between youth and first-team football.

Now in its 10th edition , the UEFA Youth League has provided a first taste of European action for some of the continent’s most talented under-19 players, who have then gone on to star at the very highest level. The tournament has recently hit an important milestone, with more than 1,000 players now having graduated from the Youth League to feature in the UEFA Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League.

The 2023/24 UEFA Youth League, which is set for an exciting finish as Milan, Nantes, Olympiacos and Porto head to Nyon for the finals on 19 and 22 April, will be the last edition before a new, expanded format is introduced. This will open the tournament up to more teams, providing even more players with the chance to gain invaluable European experience.

New format coming in 2024/25

The 10th edition edition of the UEFA Youth League represents the final tournament in its current 64-team guise. A new, expanded format will begin in the 2024/25 season to ensure more European clubs and players can benefit from the sporting and social education that comes with participation.

The domestic champions path will be expanded to include youth champions representing all UEFA National Associations – a significant increase on the current limit of the top-32-ranked associations. The UEFA Champions League path will also add four teams to its starting roster, matching the senior competition’s shift to a 36-team league phase.

Giving youth a platform for development

The chance to play in more competitive matches against top opposition is key to the impact of the Youth League, but the tournament also makes a difference in other ways.

Players get the opportunity to travel abroad with their teammates, train and play in bigger stadiums, and compete in front of bigger crowds. Many of the matches are televised, and exposure to this extra pressure is essential for their passage into senior football.

Among the recent UEFA Youth League alumni to graduate to senior European football is Wouter Goes, who captained AZ Alkmaar to the title in 2022/23 and has since played for the club in the UEFA Europa Conference League.

“With the Under-19s, you don’t get to play a lot of international football,” he explains. “The Youth League is a completely different experience. It’s more competitive, more people come to watch you play, and you’re under more pressure. You don’t experience that kind of pressure normally.

Wouter Goes

Bayern Munich’s Leroy Sané is another who has graduated from appearing in the competition to establishing themselves as key players for club and country.

“For us it was a massive experience,” recalls Sané. “You play against teams that you don’t normally face at the youth level, and since there are not many tournaments abroad, it’s a really good comparison to measure yourself against teams from other countries.

Leroy Sané, who represented Schalke 04 (UYL, 2013/14 and 2014/15)

“It was something really special. It helped me a lot, because you come up against different playing styles in different countries, which is always a new and different challenge.”

Educating coaches and players

As well as its significant impact on player development, the UEFA Youth League also provides important education for both coaches and players.

For young coaches who are developing alongside their players, the Youth League presents unique challenges. Coming up against new opposition with different styles is key to their development, while navigating a group stage and knockout format is another big test.

More than 20 coaches have graduated from the Youth League to managing in a senior European competition, including current RB Leipzig manager Marco Rose.

For players, the Youth League is not just about growing their game on the pitch, but also making a wider impact. Every season, UEFA organises educational initiatives for Youth League clubs, and players are also encouraged to take part in social programmes, with a €500 UEFA grant given to each club to facilitate this.

“As a coach, you 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."

Sir Alex Ferguson on the benefits of the UEFA Youth League for coaches

“That supply of talent comes 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.”

Sir Alex Ferguson

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