By Liam Twomey
On Monday afternoon at Stade de Colovray in Nyon, Barcelona and Benfica will battle it out to become the inaugural winners of the Uefa Youth League, the competition unveiled by European football’s governing body last summer to displace the hugely successful NextGen Series as the primary testing ground for the brightest talents of the continent’s elite clubs.
The new competition achieved that particular objective before a single ball had been kicked. Last August, NextGen co-founders Justin Andrews and Brentford manager Mark Warburton announced they were suspending their tournament for a year because the necessary funding had not been forthcoming. "I think the sponsors looked at it and thought that any sponsorship of NextGen would have been impacted by Uefa’s model," Warburton tells Goal.
Such concerns were understandable. Uefa had secured the participation of all 32 Champions League clubs for their tournament, and significant doubts were raised over whether the most glamorous and marketable teams would be willing to commit to more than one European youth competition.
In the end NextGen rendered any potential issues redundant by removing themselves from the equation, leaving the Youth League to enjoy a peaceful first year and, Uefa insists, a successful one.
"The response from the clubs [to the competition] has been overwhelmingly positive," Uefa Club Competitions Committee chairman Michael van Praag says. "Indeed, in an internal survey conducted of all 32 competition clubs, 31 clubs expressed their satisfaction with the competition and gave input to further improve it.
"Uefa has worked together with the clubs to make the opening season of this exciting new competition a great success."
Some of the initiatives cited by Van Praag as particularly well received include the synchronisation of group fixtures between the Youth League and Champions League (enabling youth teams to travel with their club’s senior players on away trips before playing their matches at grounds no more than a 45-minute coach ride away from the Champions League venues) and the consistently high level of playing conditions.
The Youth League has also provided a platform for referees training at the Uefa Centre of Refereeing Excellence (CORE) to hone their skills in a competitive and international environment.
But while the Champions League clubs who have participated in Uefa’s tournament may be broadly satisfied, much of the criticism of the competition since its inception has centred around an entry criteria which many feel rewards first-team achievement rather than youth team prowess. This is the main reason why Warburton feels the door is open for NextGen to return next season.
"We’re talking about it now," he reveals. "The sponsors are looking at how the Uefa Youth League has been received and how that might impact any NextGen sponsorship.
"There have been discussions taking place and I can only hope they prove successful and it can then be re-launched for the third year.
"There have been indications from a number of clubs that they want NextGen to come back. That’s not to make a comment on the Uefa Youth League, it’s just because it guarantees European football. A lot of these clubs would rather be challenged by the variety of top teams in Europe."
It hardly helped Uefa’s cause when launching the Youth League that their chosen entry criteria omitted Aston Villa, the 2013 NextGen champions, and beaten semi-finalists Sporting. The fact that the youth teams of Viktoria Plzen, Basel and Zenit St Petersburg garnered just two points between them from 18 Youth League group stage matches this season only added fuel to the fire.
But while Van Praag confirms Uefa will review all aspects of the tournament at the end of next season, he insists the current format has been a success. "The statistics bear out the fact that the competition has been highly competitive from the start and there have in fact been very few occasions were teams have been unevenly matched in terms of ability," he states.
"Indeed, the competitive balance of the competition has been higher than in this season's Champions League, with 55 per cent of matches ending in draws or victories by a one-goal margin."
Van Praag’s argument may be true but it will provide scant consolation to the high-achieving academies of less glamorous clubs who find themselves on the outside looking in. Warburton is adamant there is a need for another tournament which caters for them.
"If the Uefa model is linked to Champions League qualification by your first team, any investment or success at youth team level is irrelevant," he insists.
"That means the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham, Everton or Aston Villa could miss out. It’s the same overseas. Sporting Lisbon and Inter didn’t qualify this year, so their academies lose the opportunity to challenge themselves at European level. There’s definitely a void there."
Warburton’s reasoning is hard to dispute. The big question is whether there is a commercial market for Uefa’s Youth League and NextGen to co-exist. One can only hope there is - if only because talented young footballers, and by extension football, will be the big winner.
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