How to Help your Child pursue a Pathway to Play Professional Football in Europe

I have helped to prepare players for training and playing opportunities overseas since 2000. During that period I have spent time studying training methodologies at professional club academies in the UK (Wolves, Crewe Alexandra), Portugal (FC Porto), Spain (Sevilla, RCD Espanyol, Malaga) and Italy (Chievo Verona).

Players that we have worked with have gone on to successfully sign for Wolves and Swansea City (UK),  Hercules CF (Spain), Achilles 29 (Holland) and FC Ferrerias (Portugal). Many others have gained valuable academy training experiences at Glasgow Rangers, Fleetwood Town, Wolves, Stoke City, West Ham (UK), FC Porto (Portugal), Sevilla, RCD Espanyol and Malaga (Spain).

 

It is not an easy or clearly defined pathway for young North American players to gain valuable player development experiences training and playing at top professional clubs in Europe. Some of the challenges include the North American youth system being fragmented with no clear pathway to clubs overseas, the Canadian and US soccer associations not promoting or permitting their youth players to follow European pathways and FIFA, regulations placing restrictions on non-EEC players.

Many North American parents do not have any experience with European football and are unaware of how to assist their talented children achieve their soccer goals. Youth development in North America on the men’s side lags significantly when compared to the player development systems in top European countries such as UK, Spain, and  Portugal.  North America has so far failed to develop one world class outfield player with a combined (Canada and US ) population of over 350 million. Contrast that with countries like Portugal (10 million) and Spain ( 46 million) who have won one World cup (Spain 2010) and three European Championships between them (Spain 2008/2012 and Portugal 2016) within the last 11 years. In recent years, Portugal has developed Cristiano Ronaldo and other world-class players like Pepe (FC Porto) Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid) and Bruno Fernandes (Sporting CP). During the same timeframe Spain has developed top players like Andres Iniestia, Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid) and  Rodri and David Silva (Manchester City).          

For young players to follow their dream of playing professional football they should ensure that they are doing well at school and that they are continually developing their technical skills. To fully develop their technical skills they have to train at a high level within a team environment and complete supplementary training with small-groups and individually at home. A recent study confirmed that technical skill is the best determinant of soccer success! Learn More 

Former Arsenal Manager and newly appointed Head of Global Football Development for FIFA, Arsene Wenger, has identified four stages of focus for youth development:

Ages 5-12: Technical Focus

Ages 12-16: Physical Focus

Ages 18-20: Tactical Focus

Ages 20+: Mental Focus

There are a progressive set of stages that you as parents can follow to assist your children to maximize their soccer potential and pursue playing opportunities in Europe:

  1. Ensure that your child is focused and keeping up high marks at school. Most professional clubs in Europe do not let their players train or play if school is not a priority and marks are not as high as they should be.
  2. Ensure that your child is learning within a positive learning environment where the focus is on individual player development versus team performances or results
  3. Ensure that your child has a way to complete supplementary training to continuously improve technical skills. This training can take the form of supplementary training programs and/or individual training at home. As a comparison, young EPL academy players the UK typically train 10 hours/week plus play 1 game.
  4. Seek opportunities for your child to be trained by European academy coaches so that they can understand the training standards demanded from professional clubs in Europe. These can be local Player ID camps featured coaches from academy teams in Europe.
  5. Have your child travel overseas to train with academy players in Europe. This will expose them to the European soccer culture which can ignite their passion for the game. It will also  provide them with valuable experience of competing against players who ultimately they will have to successfully compete against if they wish to play professional soccer in Europe.
  6. Find opportunities for your child to spend extended periods in Europe training with academy teams and gain playing experience within successful youth development models such as the UK, Spain, Italy and Portugal.

Note: If players with access to EEC passports have not been scouted by teams at age 16 then the next target should be attend formal trials at age 18+.       

 

Summary of Recommended  Pathway for Elite Players to Play in Europe

Ages: 5-11: Foundation Phase

  • Join a local team with a positive learning environment
  • Engage in supplementary technical training (individual and/or small-group)
  • Attend a local Player ID Camp with academy coaches from professional clubs in Europe
  • Follow a European academy recommended talent development pathway:
      • When in possession develop ball mastery technical skills,  develop the confidence to try new things, seek creative solutions and combine effectively with team-mates to create and score goals
      • When out of possession, enjoy winning the ball back, be successful in 1v1’s and look to see how you can start attacks when you gain possession
      • Enjoy defending in multiple roles and develop a range of techniques to win back possession
      • In transition develop quick reactions when you have won or lost the ball. Have a positive attitude when you win the ball back to launch a successful attack. Be proactive when the ball is lost and develop your confidence to defend quickly.   

Ages 12-16: Youth Development Phase

  • Continue playing in a local team and aim to become the best player in your region
  • Continue supplementary training to match academy players in the UK – 10 hours/week
  • Travel overseas to gain training and playing experiences at professional academies – participate in extended stays at international academies to achieve full immersion in that countries development system (longer than 2 weeks). For North American players there are opportunities to continue their education with this important step in their football development pathway towards professional soccer   
  • Follow a European academy recommended talent development pathway:
      • In possession look to be capable of receiving and transferring the ball to all areas on the field.
      • Be creative in situations where you are outnumbered to in tight spaces
      • Stay connected to team-mates in build up play
      • Develop your abilities to create and score goals
      • Successfully defend in 1v1 situations
      • Be successful in defending situations by being patient, timing your challenges and outsmarting opponents
      • Be the first player to react when winning and losing possession
      • Learn to mange a game in terms of tempo and other tactical situations
      • Force errors from opponents and successful distrust attacks and defend your goal 

Ages 17- 23 : Professional Development Phase

  • Age 16, players with access to EEC passports should be looking to sign contracts with professional clubs. Players should focus on securing contracts with clubs that match their current level of ability.
  • If players do not sign for a professional club then they should look to join an international academy linked to a professional club, where they can combine their education with pursuing a career as a professional football player
  • Non – EEC players can attend formal trials with clubs once they have reached the age of 18
  • Follow a European academy recommended talent development pathway:
      • Develop abilities to successfully retain possession both individually and when combining with teammates under all situations on the field
      • Be capable of creating and taking goalscoring opportunities against compact and well organized defences
      • Fully dominate 1v1 defending situations
      • Work individually and with teammates to nullify any defending threats
      • Recognize opportunities to penetrate the opposition quickly, whilst also understanding when to retain and build possession, control the tempo and change the speed of play.

    • To assist young players to maximize their potential and achieve their soccer goals we can offer the following talent identification and talent development support:

      • Training and Playing Opportunities Overseas
        • Glasgow Rangers and  Fleetwood Town (UK)
        • Valencia (Spain)
        • FC Porto and various clubs in Portugal
        • Cagliari and AC Perugia (Italy)
      • International academies with links to professional clubs
        • Spain
        • Portugal
        • UK
        • Greece