Celtic made headlines last season with their performances against Barcelona in the Champions League group stages, with a specific highlight given to the leg in Glasgow where the Scottish giants pulled off a stunning 2-1 victory. One of the goalscorers for Celtic was 18-year old Tony Watt and while he may have never faced the likes of Messi, Xavi and Valdes before that game, he’d certainly gotten a taste in 2011 when he represented Celtic in youth competition’s response to the Champions League, The NextGen Series where he and a team of U-19 Celtic players took on Barcelona’s Juvenil A squad from the famed La Masia.
The NextGen competition began in 2011 as a 16-team tournament with an all star cast of clubs known around Europe for their ability to produce talent such as Sporting Lisbon, Barcelona, Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, and Marseille as well other European heavy and middle weights like Fenerbahce, Manchester City, Inter Milan, Tottenham, Wolfsburg and Liverpool.
In an interview with Liverpool TV one of the co-founders of the tournament, Mark Warburton expresses the main goal of the tournament in one sentence:
“The education and development of Europe’s elite youth players through the offering of a consistent, high quality challenge.”
That challenge goes beyond simply exposing young players to different stylistic opposition, it also gives young players the opportunity to see what it’s like to travel as the first team does for European fixtures and prepare for matches that will be played in major venues like Anfield and Sporting’s Estadio Jose Alvalade. Beyond that, a “host agreement” was established where clubs were initially intended to ease the logistical load, but led to teams eating together before and after matches and coaches interacting and exchanging ideas.
In every sense, the competition’s maiden season was a complete success with Inter Milan defeating Ajax in the final on penalties after a 1-1 draw. NextGen’s second season saw an expansion to 24 teams, with Switzerland’s FC Basel declining a return invitation, but adding the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Anderlecht, Atheltic Bilbao, CSKA Moscow and Olympiakos which served to only increases the notoriety of the competition.
With a culmination in all English final of Aston Villa and Chelsea the tournament had managed to spark a debate and discussion about the youth development side of the sport, an aspect that has rarely sustained a constant attention from punditry and fans alike.
With players like Raheem Sterling, Viktor Fischer, Nathan Ake and Graham Gardner making names for themselves in venues like Bilbao’s San Mames, Villa Park and The Emirates, it’s a bit surprising that the tournament launched it’s first season without any sponsors at all. The second season saw an expansion into better production and broadcasting of the product in agreements with EuroSport, ESPN and SuperSport and built a fan experience yet they failed to find a sponsor and sufficient funding.
This lack of funding has lead to this seasons NextGen series being suspended for a year and it couldn’t have come at a worse time as UEFA introduces its UEFA Youth League which is basically a shadow Champions League. The youth teams represented will be the youth teams of the clubs who qualified for the group stage of the Senior Champions League competition and matches will mirror the dates that the senior teams play.
Despite the NextGen series being the first-to-market product with regards to pan European club competition in this format, they risk losing all ground to UEFA by not staging a competition this season.
Many youth academies previously involved in the NextGen series have voiced their disappointment at the suspension of the tournament but it should be noted that 13 of the 24 clubs that participated in the 2012/13 NextGen season have qualified for the Champions League group stages and consequently the UEFA Youth League.
An interesting caveat though is that the winner, Aston Villa who beat Chelsea 2-0 in the final, did not qualify. In fact 7 clubs, almost half of the elimination round from that season did not qualify.
This raises what is most likely the defining issue between the two tournaments. With so much publicized money in FIFA, UEFA and national Federations for youth development, the UEFA Youth league doesn’t actually reward clubs with successful youth programs, they reward clubs with successful senior teams. The NextGen tournament, on the other hand was an invitation tournament that couldn’t find sufficient sponsorship funding and yet showcased the legitimate youth talent based on a club’s development practices.
The NextGen Series has made it very clear that they always intended to work within the structure of established leagues and competitions so as to develop a proper blend of education and realistic athletic competition. This commitment resulted in quite a bit of logistics work to make the first two seasons a success yet with the UEFA Youth Cup set up without the NextGen directly competing, they risk coming back next season having lost major market share and having to deal with an additional established schedule.
With the money that UEFA has at its disposal it’s unclear which competition clubs will chose once they have the option since it seems impossible to do both.
NextGen’s announcement of it’s lack of funding came late this summer while UEFA’s Youth League was announced in December of last year. Though the timing is far apart, the time of UEFA’s announcement would coincide with the final stages of NextGen’s 2012/13 competition and potentially around the optimal time for the series to begin meeting with potential future sponsors. If this was the case, its possible UEFA’s announcement could have either scared off potential sponsors, or even excluded them from partnering due to a pre-existing relationship with the governing body.
Regardless of how or why events unfolded as they did, The NextGen competition isn’t down and out. Probably the most important part of UEFA’s Youth League announcement was that it was set up on a provisional two-year basis. If NextGen comes back with sufficient funding and pulls major clubs back into its fold it has the potential show up its UEFA counterpart and regain an edge that was built over two years of impressive competition.
Though this season’s UEFA Youth League will certainly be one to watch, I for one will be keeping an eye on next season in the hope I have to choose between watching a NextGen match and a UEFA Youth League match.