Football - Spain lead way with academies despite economic woes

Real Sociedad have been the surprise packages in La Liga this season and their surge to fourth place is all the more impressive given they have fielded 16 home-grown players.

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Real Sociedad coach Philippe Montanier (Reuters)

While Barcelona take the plaudits for the dazzling achievements of their academy graduates, clubs like San Sebastian-based Sociedad and Basque neighbours Athletic Bilbao are proof Spain is blessed with highly efficient talent factories.

Bilbao, like Sociedad and Barcelona fiercely proud of their regional identity, only hire players of Basque origin.

They have used 20 from their academy this term, according to a report by Barcelona-based Prime Time Sport.

Sociedad are second on the list with 16 followed by Barca on 15. Those three clubs are top for the third season in a row.

Among the 20 teams in the top flight only Granada have not used a home-grown player in the past two campaigns, with champions Real Madrid fielding seven this season and Atletico Madrid eight.

In Europe's leading five leagues French side Olympique Lyon are the only other top club in double figures with 10.

Sociedad's French coach Philippe Montanier believes one reason for the success of the Spanish academies is the emphasis on technical ability rather than physical strength.

Some members of league leaders Barca's squad are prime examples of the trend with Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets underpinning the Catalan club's recent success and Spain's unprecedented haul of European Championship triumphs in 2008 and 2012 with a World Cup inbetween.

"Spain has taken the opposite route to France, focusing on slighter players who are blessed with great intelligence on the pitch," Montanier told Eurosport.

"The Spaniards and the Brazilians have fun practising their technique in enclosed spaces and they are constantly doing ball work.

"In France the training is very demanding and rigorous and maybe when the kids get to 18 or 19 they have lost their love for football," added Montanier.

Promoting home-grown players to the first team not only helps strengthen the bond between club and fans, it can also have an economic benefit that is becoming increasingly important for Spain's cash-strapped clubs.

The recession gripping the nation coupled with years of profligacy have left many in a parlous state with combined debts of more than 3.5 billion euros ($4.5 billion), according to a report by an accounting professor at the University of Barcelona.

Rules being phased in by European soccer's governing body UEFA and the introduction of similar domestic regulations are designed to prevent clubs spending more than they earn and recent activity in the transfer market suggests they are starting to bite.

La Liga clubs spent only 12.3 million euros in the January transfer window, according to Prime Time Sport.

Adding the close-season market, outgoings from Spanish clubs fell by 62 percent compared with the previous season to 140 million euros, the lowest in five years.

"Despite this decrease the Spanish league has not lost its competitiveness in the short-term thanks to football executives looking for less expensive options," said Esteve Calzada, founder of Prime Time Sport and a former general director of marketing at Barca.

These included signing players on free transfers or loan deals but also relying more on the development programmes of the clubs, he added.

The number of home-grown players used by La Liga clubs has increased from 137 in the 2010-11 season to 155 this term.

Placido Rodriguez, a professor of economics at Oviedo University and a former chairman of Sporting Gijon, is sceptical that bringing youth team players through can help solve the financial difficulties of the clubs.

He said that beyond Barca, Bilbao and Sociedad, few sides promoted a significant number of academy graduates to their first team.

"This is what everyone said back in 2000 when the economic difficulties began to emerge," Rodriguez told Reuters.

"I think this is what will happen - many teams will take players on free transfers but generally there will be very few youth players making it into the first team except in cases like Bilbao."

Angel Barajas, a professor of finance at the University of Vigo, said one unwelcome effect of the economic crisis could be clubs are forced to offload their best young talent to raise cash.

"Unfortunately it seems to me the financial struggles of La Liga clubs don't necessarily have to translate into them relying more and more on academy graduates," he told Reuters.

"What we are also seeing is the export of young players to foreign leagues."

One club that sees a flourishing academy as a means of helping keep costs under control and staying in line with UEFA regulations are Malaga, bought by a member of the Qatar royal family in 2010.

The Andalusian side, through to the last eight of the Champions League on their debut in the competition this season, hired the experienced Manuel Casanova from Espanyol two years ago to set up what he calls "an elite academy".

"The objective is to create an academy like Barca and Bilbao," he told Reuters. "Other countries look at Spain as an example, a reference point."

Asked how he spots promising players, Casanova identified something money cannot buy.

"It's a secret," he added. "I go to the pitch and in 15 minutes I can say who the good ones are.

"It's something you have or you don't - you won't find it in any book. Some people have a gift as opera singers and this is my gift."

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