Academies are the lifeblood of the game in many respects. Whilst some teams look to create their own future stars, some rely heavily on their youth products in order to balance the books. Either way, for the teams who get it right, a productive academy can be crucial for long-term success. In deciphering which academies are the strongest, one must consider both the sheer volume of future professional players produced and the quality of those individuals.
Creating a successful academy is no easy feat. Some clubs have poured hundreds of millions into their youth set-ups with very little reward. The right facilities, coaching and recruitment all have to be in place before a club can produce genuine talent. Recent FFP and home-grown rules that have been introduced in many countries mean that clubs are rapidly searching for the magic formula for a productive academy.
In the soccer economy we live in now, it seems many teams would rather simply buy talent than take the time to develop young players. As a result, the rich teams always seem to run away with titles, but having a strong academy can give you an incredible advantage over other teams.
This list is only in regards to academies' productivity right now. Some clubs, such as West Ham United and Argentinos Juniors are steeped in history for creating talented players, but have struggled to do so as prolifically in recent years. The criteria by which a player can be said to have emerged from a club's academy is if they have been at the club for three or more years between the ages of 15 and 21. Here are the top 20 academies in world soccer right now:
Portuguese giants Porto have a particular knack for buying promising young players and selling them for huge profit, recent examples include the likes of; Hulk, Pepe, Anderson, Falcao, Bosingwa and James Rodriguez. However, they have also created a number of talented players themselves. Recent examples include Bruno Alves and Ruben Neves, the latter of which has already become a first team regular at the age of 18. Between 2003 and 2013, Porto made more than half a billion euros through player sales, a testament to the club's fine youth and development work.
19 Liberty Professionals
Located in a suburb of the Ghanaian capital, Accra, lies a soccer team named Liberty Professionals. The club plays in a 2,000 capacity stadium and tend to finish in the mid-lower regions of the Glo Premier League. Despite such a humble setting, the club who were founded in 1996 and play under the tagline 'Simply the Best', have produced some of the most talented players on the continent. Superstars Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Asamoah Gyan emerged from the club's academy, whilst fellow Ghana internationals Derek Boateng, John Pantsil and Emmanuel Osei did likewise.
18 Partizan Belgrade
Serbia seem to be producing better and better prospects in recent years, and a lot of that is down to the work of Partizan Belgrade. The second most successful club in the country, the majority of Partizan's first team is made up of their own crop of youngsters. Recent star products of the academy include Stevan Jovetic, Matija Nastasic, Adem Ljajic, Lazar Markovic and Miralem Sulejmani, who all play for clubs who competed in this season's Champions League.
17 Manchester United
Ten years ago Manchester United would have been comfortably in the top three of this list. The crop of players dubbed the 'Class of '92', namely David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and Phil Neville, is perhaps the most talented plethora of players to emerge from a single generation of an academy in the last 30 years. Recently however, the academy has failed to produce such wonderful players. The club continue to try and focus on youth, and current first team players Johnny Evans, Adnan Januzaj, Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett and James Wilson are all recent products of the club's academy.
16 Club Deportivo Guadalajara
The second most successful team in Mexico, Guadalajara are the only club in the country to enforce a strict policy of only fielding Mexican players. As a result, Chivas are forced to focus on youth, and look to create a direct conveyor belt from their academy to their first team and produce as many young stars as possible. The strict policy has been criticized by some but has paid off in terms of the club's youth output. Recent stars include Javier Hernandez (AKA Chicharito), Carlos Vela, Omar Bravo and Carlos Salcido. Whilst current academy products at the club Erick Torres, Miguel Ponce, Marco Fabian, Isaac Brizuela and Aldo di Nigris have all played for the Mexican National Team.
15 Boca Juniors
Few clubs have been blessed with the number of exceptional players that have played for Boca Juniors over the last century. The club's academy has churned out some of the finest Argentine players and continues to do so today. Carlos Tevez, Fernando Gago, Ever Banega and Nicolas Gaitan are all recent youth products, whilst one can add Juan Roman Riquelme and Nicolas Burdisso should they look back a few more years. So consistent has the academy been, it has been nicknamed the 'Boca Factory', and even though it is not currently enjoying its most fruitful years, it is well worth a place on this list.
14 Real Madrid
Ever since the world record breaking signing of Luis Figo in 2000 and the beginning of Real's Galacticos transfer policy which included Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, David Beckham, Kaka and more recently Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, the club has been seen as generally using its purchasing power to create great teams. By and large, this reputation is one with solid grounds. However, the Real academy has produced a number of talented players, even though most did not get their chance at the Bernabeu. Real's list of academy graduates include Samuel Eto'o, Raul, Guti, Iker Casillas, Alvaro Arbeloa, Juan Mata and Roberto Soldado. Referred to in Spain as 'La Fabrica' (the factory), even more recent examples include Juventus' Alvaro Morata, Napoli's Jose Callejon and current Real duo Dani Carvajal and Jese Rodriguez.
13 Dinamo Zagreb
Over half the Dinamo Zagreb squad are their own former academy players and the sales of their own star assets has ensured the club's financial stability, at least for the foreseeable future. The golden child of the Dinamo academy has undoubtedly been Real Madrid star Luka Modric, but other notable youth products include Eduardo, Mateo Kovacic, Dejan Lovren, Milan Badelj and Vedran Corluka, all of whom have become regular Croatian internationals. Meanwhile, the Dinamo Zagreb Academy shows little sign of decline, with 18-year-old Alen Halilovic becoming Croatia's youngest ever player last year and signing for Barcelona this year.
Arsenal are another club who are very adept at snapping up talented youngsters and developing them into fully-fledged superstars under their wing. Like Porto though, the North Londoners have also produced a number of very good players themselves. Since the days of Tony Adams and Andy Cole emerging from the club's academy, a long line of others have joined them, these include; Ashley Cole, Kieran Gibbs, Jack Wilshere, Seb Larsson and Armand Traore. The most notable recent youth product, though, is Cesc Fabregas, who having joined the club at the age of 16, qualifies as their own academy graduate.
11 Atletico Bilbao
Bilbao are known for their strict cantera approach and dedication to bringing through players specifically from the Basque region. As a result, the club tends to bring through a large number of their academy players into the first team. This is reflected in the current Bilbao team which features the likes of Iker Munian, Aymeric Laporte, Benat Etxebarria, and many other products of the club's academy. As well as the current crop of Bilbao first team players, departed academy players include Juventus' Fernando Llorente and Manchester United's Ander Herrera.
Ever since the 5-1 defeat to England in 2001, youth football in Germany has seen an overhaul. Recent victory at the 2014 World Cup is evidence of success in Germany's policy, which has been based on a faith in youth players in the top flight of German football, the Bundesliga. No team has typified that policy better than FC Schalke 04. The seven time German champions have brought through the likes of Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Howedes and Mesut Ozil who have all since left the club, whilst current academy products Julian Draxler, Max Meyer, Kaan Ayhan, Felix Platte and Leroy Sane are some of the hottest rated youngsters in Europe and are all now members of the Schalke first team, whilst two are already in the German national team.
Fourteen of the current Feyenoord first team came through the club's highly-regarded academy, which includes 20-year-old Tonny Vilhena and the teams 23-year-old captain Jordy Clasie, one of the highest rated players in Holland right now. Departed stars of the Feyenoord academy include Robin van Persie, Jonathon de Guzman, Leroy Fer and Bruno Martins Indi, all current Netherlands internationals. Whilst Feyenoord seem unable to hang on to their most promising youngsters, the line of talent seems to be a constant stream and continues to help finance the club.
8 Sao Paulo
The most successful club in Brazilian footballing history, Sao Paulo have given birth to the careers of some of the most gifted players in South America. The Brazilian national team has generally featured at least three or four Sao Paulo youth products throughout the club's history, and today is no different. The finest graduate of this generation has been AC Milan legend Kaka, who now plies his trade in the MLS. Other notable recent alumni include Hernanes, Jean, Oscar, Lucas Moura, Cafu, Denilson and Rogerio Ceni.
Clairefontaine is one of 12 academies in France supervised by the French Football Federation. Located just outside of Paris, it has been the most successful academy in France over the last two decades. Founded in 1988, graduates of the academy include Nicolas Anelka, Hatem Ben-Arfa, Abou Diaby, Sebastien Bassong, Mehdi Benatia, William Gallas, Louis Saha and most notably, Thierry Henry. The academy develops players from the age of 13 to 15 before moving them on to professional football, and has proved immensely successful.
Historically Santos has always been a great club which has provided great players for the Brazilian national team, with Pele being the most obvious example. Sixty years on from Pele making his Santos debut, the club continues to produce excellent footballers. Elano, Alex, Diego, Robinho, Ganso and Andre have all become Brazilian internationals, however, the hottest talent to emerge from the Santos academy in recent years is undoubtedly the world class talent of Neymar. The Barcelona forward has 62 caps and 43 goals for his country at the age of 23, a staggering achievement, and he is the poster boy for a well-below par generation of Brazilian talent.
Some will consider fifth place too high for the Southampton academy but when one looks at their immediate recent products and current youngsters, their high position is easily justifiable. Even whilst playing in the third tier of English football, Southampton continued to produce players that were the envy of the countries top teams. Gareth Bale is the most highly regarded of the Saints' formidable production line, but Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse are all very good footballers who have emerged from the set-up at St Mary's. Youngsters Matt Targett, Harrison Reed and Sam Gallagher all find themselves in the clubs first team squad, and look set to continue the clubs recent record of breeding their own quality players.
If this list were historical and not current, Ajax would be either first or second. Academy graduates of years gone by have included Johan Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert. However, whilst Ajax may have slipped slightly, they still have easily one of the top academies in world football. Recent youth products feature the likes of Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, John Heitinga, Nigel de Jong, Maarten Stekelenburg, Ryan Babel, Daley Blind, Urby Emanuelson, Christian Eriksen, Siem de Jong, Thomas Vermaelen, Gregory van der Wiel and Jan Vertonghen. Whilst others may have produced greater quality, few can match the number of top flight players Ajax have produced in recent years.
3 Sporting Lisbon
Since producing Luis Figo way back in 1989, Sporting CP have been at the epicenter of Portugal's young footballing talent. Rui Patricio, Eric Dier, Nani, Simao, Jao Moutinho, Miguel Veloso, Ricardo Quaresma, Silvestre Varela, Beto, Jose Fonte, Luis Boa Morte and Nene are just some of the considerable talents to have emerged from the Sporting academy since Ballon d'Or winner Luis Figo. However, all are overlooked by Sporting's most notable academy product, Cristiano Ronaldo. The Real Madrid superstar has won the Ballon d'Or on three occasions and played 25 times for Sporting before joining Manchester United at the age of 18.
2 Bayern Munich
Bayern's pulling power in Germany is well-known, and one of the things that puts foreign fans off the Bundesliga is Bayern's dominance and seeming ability to lure the best players from their competitors. Despite this, in recent years, Bayern themselves have had one of the best academies in the game. Their current squad includes academy graduates like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Holger Badstuber, Thomas Muller, David Alaba and Gianluca Gaudino all emerged from the clubs academy, whilst departed youth products include Owen Hargreaves, Emre Can, Toni Kroos, Mats Hummels, Dietmar Hamann and Diego Contento.
The indisputable best academy in world soccer today is Barcelona. In truth, no other club comes close to the conveyor belt of talent that has come through the Catalan giants in recent years. 'La Masia', or 'The Farmhouse', as it is known, has been the world's leading academy for over a decade. In 2012, Barcelona fielded a starting 11 featuring only players from their academy and when Spain won the 2010 World Cup final, seven of their starting 11 had learnt the game at La Masia.
The most notable recent La Masia youth products include Carles Puyol, Xavi, Pepe Reina, Victor Valdes, Mikel Arteta, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Motta, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Bojan, Pedro, Jordi Alba, Giovani dos Santos, Sergi Roberto, Cristian Tello, Gerard Deulofeu, Marc Bartra and Thiago Alcantara.
Despite the quite incredible talents of the players listed above, once more, one man overshadows the rest. Lionel Messi is Barcelona's finest youth product, and possibly the finest player in the history of the game. His balance, flair, skill, vision, passing and dribbling are all reflected in the La Masia philosophy and Messi is undoubtedly their most perfect representative.