A club’s main roster is the showroom of the institution itself. This means that the group of professional athletes incarnate a certain personality and share that with the fans. If there is no spark of chemistry between the players and the supporters, everyone’s position will be more fragile, from the most modest under-13 coach to the CEO. So when it comes to the squad’s strategy, what should the focus be? National players, foreigners who speak the same language? Do any cultural characteristics even matter? What impact do homegrown kids have on a club’s success? We could spread these issues throughout a 200-page novel, but we’ll keep it simple for now.
Usually, focusing on inside-bred players brings some advantages (Pros):
- Constant, solid supply of players that strengthen the main roster according to the development they’ve been through the years before;
- A safer long-term strategy that depends on the club itself rather than depending on outside sources that may (or may not) provide the necessary talent;
- Although outside players can obviously be well received by the fan base and even become club symbols, it’s undeniable that the supporters build a special, prouder connection when a hometown boy delivers great performances.
However, it may very well bring some spending and difficulties as well (Cons):
- Large youth team investments, whose staff and infrastructure require heavy maintenance costs;
- Scouting network with the purpose of finding the best gems around, with all the mobility and accommodation expenses that follow;
- Initial investment when offering contracts to teenagers whose future may not reside in the club that nurtured them – therefore, a sunken cost.
Of course, there are clubs whose top management executives just don’t care: they “go with the flow”, hire players out of spite or solely for marketing purposes (which is financially vital, don’t get me wrong, but the athlete needs to fit the game plan as well). Apart from that, it’s actually enlightening to look at objective figures to understand whether clubs are in favorable to national, international or moderate approaches. Which strategy works best?
Example 1: Cyprus, the perfect excuse for outsourcing
According to a 2017 report by the CIES Football Observatory, who focused their analyses on first divisions only, the Cypriot league is the one with a higher percentage of minutes played by outsiders (80,2%). This country’s particular case is understandable: lower population (just over 1 Million) and still developing high-level youth academies. Apollon Limassol, Anorthosis and AEK Larnaca are the most prominent examples of clubs who still have trouble bringing up the ‘home silver’. Ironically, and despite their assigned spot in major UEFA competitions, none of them have been able to establish themselves as European threats.
These teams from Cyprus import foreigners almost out of absolute need, which is not the case with Turkey (73,3%) and world giant England (61,2%), with clubs like Karabükspor and Chelsea being clear tokens of today’s globalised football world. On the other end, the most nationalist case is Serbia (only 15% of minutes played by expatriates, which means 85% played by Serbian athletes), a country that mixes limited budgets with solid youth systems – FK Partizan has arguably one of the best academies in Europe.
Example 2: Athletic Bilbao, 100% Homegrown
The Spanish team is the absolute pinnacle of the homegrown kids policy, pushing it to the extreme and almost turning it into a nationalism issue. Since 1911, the philosophy is simple: Every single player that puts on that red and white shirt has been developed in the Basque team’s youth structure or bred within the autonomous community and surrounding areas. The rules have softened throughout the years, but the core line of thinking has remained the same.
The fact that the club has 8 Spanish League titles, 23 Copas del Rey and is the one of three clubs that never tasted the sour flavour of relegation (Real Madrid and Barcelona are the other two) completely rips apart the argument that says “it’s impossible to win using solely homegrown kids”.
Example 3: Bayern, Barcelona and other cases of equilibrium
All in all, the best bet seems to consist on a balanced system where there’s a well-established youth system that regularly provides the base human structure of the main roster and, in addition, the scouting and sports management departments are able to pinpoint acquisitions for nuclear roles within the set of tactics that the coach develops. These surgical signings make it possible to fill in the gaps that the youth squads weren’t able to fill in with the intended quality – it’s possible to mould young footballers to a certain degree, but it’s almost impossible to tailor them like in a computer game.
Clubs like Barcelona, Bayern, Lyon and Santos (Brazil) have been able to get the best of both worlds and the results are at plain sight: they are fearful sides in both national and international competitions.
Aspiring for a long-term oasis is a wonderful purpose to pursue – however, the club’s top management require immediate results, the fulfillment of the current season’s objectives while still being able to lay the foundations for seasons to come, planning the careers of their key players and, therefore, planning their own future. It’s crucial to win right now, but it is just as important to make sure the team doesn’t drift down later. That’s a tough balancing exercise!