THE BEST FOOTBALL ACADEMIES IN THE WORLD
BRIEF REPORTS ON SOME OF THE BEST YOUTH ACADEMIES IN FOOTBALL
Youth development is a key pillar of many of the world’s biggest clubs. On this page, we’ve explored some of the world’s finest youth academies, looking at notable former players, current and future stars, and exploring the philosophy of these academies and the ethos that makes each of them successful.
You can find our best and most detailed reports in the Scouted Football Handbook, our quarterly magazine in which we profile 25 of the world’s best up-and-coming talents, with additional features and interviews also included.
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Notable former AFC Ajax academy players include Donny van de Beek, Sven Botman, Johan Cruijff, Edgar Davids, Sergiño Dest, Anwar El Ghazi, Nigel de Jong, Patrick and Justin Kluivert, Noa Lang, Matthijs de Ligt, Donyell Malen, Clarence Seedorf, Wesley Sneijder, Kenny Tete, Rafael van der Vaart, Joël Veltman, among many others.
AFC Ajax academy players part of the current first-team set-up include Daley Blind, Ryan Gravenberch, Davy Klaassen, Noussair Mazraoui, Devyne Rensch, Maarten Stekelenburg and Jurriën Timber.
Players to watch coming out of the AFC Ajax academy include Naci Ünüvar, Brian Brobbey, Kenneth Taylor, Sontje Hansen – all of whom were part of the Dutch group that reached the final of the 2019 FIFA Under-17 World Cup and have since made their senior Ajax debuts. There’s also players like Kian Fitz-Jim and Youri Regeer, both playing for Jong Ajax in the Dutch second division.
Details of the AFC Ajax Academy
AFC Ajax’s academy has always been the defining aspect that sets the iconic Amsterdam club apart from other great and historic institutions of football right across Europe.
Perhaps its most famous and truly game-changing product is Johan Cruijff, a legendary player who excelled in the 1970s as part of an all-conquering Ajax team that later went onto revolutionise the sport as a coach at his boyhood club and FC Barcelona.
Cruijff’s vision of football – known by the name totaalvoetbal, with play predicated on technical talent, fluid interchanges of positions, quick passing and up-tempo pressing – is what forms the basis of the Ajax academy education. It also places an inherent value on playing the game in urban areas, which helps develop innate technical talent.
Ajax academy players are almost always comfortable in possession of the ball and have strong fundamental skills as footballers. An excellent example of that is Ryan Gravenberch, an academy player who’s broken into the first-team over the last 18 months. Watch him and you’ll see the Ajax education plain and clear.
Gravenberch is also representative of a prolific pathway, starting out in senior football with Jong Ajax, the club’s B team, that compete in the Dutch second division which provides a strong bridge from academy to senior football. He spent as season-and-a-half with Jong Ajax; Matthijs de Ligt, Donny van de Beek, Brian Brobbey and so many other contemporary products all played significant minutes for the B team too.
Sven Botman did as well, a full season in fact, but he went out on loan to sc Heerenveen before being sold to LOSC Lille for €8 million. He’s since been a key member of a title-winning side, and now looks like to leave for upwards of €40 million. Others don’t even reach the Jong Ajax stage. Donyell Malen, for instance, left Ajax as a 16-year-old for Arsenal and has subsequently resurfaced and had significant success at PSV Eindhoven.
Notable former Atalanta academy players include Gaetano Scirea, Riccardo Montolivo, Giampaolo Pazzini, Roberto Donadoni, Simone Padoin, Giacomo Bonaventura, Alessio Tacchinardi, Manolo Gabbiadini, Simone Zaza, Franck Kessié, Dejan Kulusevski, Alessandro Bastoni, Daniele Baselli, Roberto Gagliardini, and Amad Diallo.
Atalanta academy players part of the current first-team set-up include Matteo Ruggeri, Mattia Caldara, Filippo Melegoni, Ebrima Colley, Enrico Del Prato, Davide Bettella, Christian Capone, and Matteo Carnesecchi.
Players to watch coming out of the Atalanta academy include Anwar Mediero, Alessandro Cortinovis, Emmanuel Gyabuaa, and Samuel Giovane.
Details of the Atalanta Academy
Atalanta’s emergence over the last few seasons is the culmination of decades of work building a successful and sustainable club with youth development at its core.
Over its history, the Bergamo-based club has leaked talents to the Milan, Inter and Juventus, largely due to their close proximity, especially to the Milanese duo. The most recent example being Manuel Locatelli, who left Atalanta to join Milan as an 11-year-old.
Despite this, Atalanta have developed a high-quality youth system, with massive investment into facilities, as well as a structure that flows not just from the top of the club to the bottom, but also into local clubs in the area.
Increasingly, Atalanta are also looking abroad, finding international talents to blend in with their local crop. Amad Diallo, Musa Barrow and Dejan Kulusevski are just a few of those international players, with the three of them netting the club an enormous windfall after their sales to Manchester United, Bologna and Juventus.
With ongoing success in Serie A and the Champions League, Atalanta should continue to emerge as a leading destination club for young players to move to.
With Italy’s Campionato Primavera being an Under-19s competition, Atalanta have looked to the loan market as a bridge between youth football and a place in the club’s first-team set-up. Last season, Enrico Del Prato, Davide Bettella, Filippo Melegoni, Matteo Carnesecchi and Christian Capone were all sent on loan to Serie B clubs to gain valuable first-team experience before returning to Bergamo.
Notable former Chelsea academy players include Tammy Abraham, Ola Aina, Lewis Bate, Ryan Bertrand, Nathaniel Chalobah, Jay Da Silva, Marc Guéhi, Tariq Lamptey, Tino Livramento, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Josh McEachran, Jamal Musiala, Eddie Nketiah, Declan Rice, Dominic Solanke, John Terry, Fikayo Tomori, among many others.
Chelsea academy players part of the current first-team set-up include Trevoh Chalobah, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James, and Mason Mount.
Chelsea academy players part of the loan group include Faustino Anjorin, Armando Broja, Jake Clarke-Salter, Levi Colwill, Jamie Cumming, Conor Gallagher, Henry Lawrence, and Dujon Sterling.
Players to watch coming out of the Chelsea academy include Jude Soonsup-Bell, Harvey Vale, and plenty more.
Details of the Chelsea academy
Chelsea’s Cobham academy is among the very best in world football – in fact, it has a very strong claim of being the best at present. While traditional powerhouses of La Masia struggle to truly live up to their exceptional reputation, Cobham goes from strength to strength, building on the extraordinary base of talent that the greater London region supplies.
The Surrey-based academy has dominated under-age football for the last decade, in England and beyond. They’ve appeared in nine FA Youth Cup final since 2010, winning seven of them; no club has won more UEFA Youth League titles than they have, having triumphed in back-to-back seasons between 2014 and 2016. Chelsea are a juggernaut in youth football.
Funded by their billionaire owner Roman Abramovich, Chelsea have ploughed money into their youth team programme and it’s yielded significant success. The club’s greatest-ever academy product predates the Russian, though. John Terry spent three years with academy teams before moving into senior football and breaking into the first-team. He was a pillar of the club’s rise from average top-flight team to dominant European contenders, which culminated in a personal trophy haul of five Premier League and FA Cup titles, as well as a famous Champions League.
What differentiates Chelsea’s academy to almost every other is the readiness of the players it producdes for senior football: Cobham graduates are often well-rounded players technically, tactically and physically. That enables them to step straight into senior football as teenagers at different levels, whether it be League Two, the Championship, or a smaller European league.
Chelsea’s loan policy has been the subject of much criticism over the years, but it consistently provides young professionals whith invaluable opportunities to develop in competitive environments. Ultimately, it furthers careers and is a significant asset-generator for the club.
A more legitimate criticism of the club would be the pathway – or lack of – for academy players into the first-team. For years, home-grown players were restricted to limited involvements and were consistently shunned for big-money additions. That changed in 2019, when a transfer ban forced the club to lean heavily on academy players under the guidance of club legend, Frank Lampard, and Jody Morris, who had spent time coaching many of them at youth level. Thet introcuded Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Reece James and Callum Hudson-Odoi into the first-team set-up, aligning the senior side with the exceptional academy for the very first time.
Players have developed all the way from entry-age to first-team football, see James and Mount, but Chelsea also supplement home-grown players with an aggressive recruitment strategy both domestically and internationally – Jude Soonsup-Bell (Swindon Town) and Ian Maatsen (PSV Eindhoven) are notable examples of that.
Notable former FC Barcelona academy players include Lionel Messi, Xavi, Pep Guardiola, Andrés Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Guillermo Amor, Pedro, Víctor Valdés, Dani Olmo, Álex Grimaldo, Juan Miranda, Marc Cucurella, Adama Traoré, Gerard Deulofeu, Marc Bartra, Ilaix Moriba, Rafinha, Thiago, Oriol Romeu, Mikel Arteta, Giovani dos Santos and Cesc Fàbregas.
FC Barcelona academy players part of the current first-team set-up include Ansu Fati, Sergio Busquets, Óscar Mingueza, Gavi Paéz, Gerard Piqué, Riqui Puig, and Sergi Roberto.
Players to watch coming out of the FC Barcelona academy include Ilias Akhomach, Alejandro Baldé, Álex Collado, Gavi, Nico González, Iñaki Peña, and many more.
Details of the FC Barcelona Academy
FC Barcelona’s La Masia academy might just be the most well-known academy in football.
While a constant developer of talent for many generations now, the academy earned global recognition in the late 2000s and early 2010s, as Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering teams won trophy after trophy and the Spanish national team won two European Championships and a World Cup.
The identity of those teams, with a focus on controlling possession with short passing and technical quality, as well as the Dutch influence of totaalvoetbal brought to the club by Johan Cruijff, has also been the basis of the academy’s education for many years.
That team had its genesis in La Masia, with Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Puyol, Pedro, Valdés, Piqué and Busquets at the heart of one of the greatest football sides of all time. The success of that team and La Masia have now become synonymous with each other. But the academy existed long before, and has endured since, with lots of success for players at the club and away from it.
Barcelona academy players have found a happy hunting ground in England especially, with Bellerin, Fàbregas, Piqué, and more recently, Eric García and Adama Traoré, launching their seniors in the Premier League; in some cases before returning to Barcelona.
The technical qualities honed by the academy education at La Masia are very portable, even if players are not able to break into the senior set-up at Barcelona. A focus on technical quality over physical power at a young age helps the academy develop footballers equipped with the tools to succeed at the professional level regardless of their physical characteristics.
Notable former Olympique Lyonnais academy players include Karim Benzema, Sidney Govou, Hatem Ben Arfa, Loïc Rémy, Maxime Gonalons, Clément Grenier, Alexandre Lacazette, Rachid Ghezzal, Jordan Ferri, Nebil Fekir, Samuel Umtiti, Alessane Pléa, Yassine Benzia, Corentin Tolisso, Anthony Martial, Mouctar Diakhaby, Myziane Maolida, Amine Gouiri, Melvin Bard, Pierre Kalulu, and Willem Geubbels.
Olympique Lyonnais academy players part of the current first-team set-up include Malo Gusto, Rayan Cherki, Anthony Lopes, Houssem Aouar, and Maxence Caqueret.
Players to watch coming out of the Olympique Lyonnais academy include Mohamed El Arouch, Florent da Silva, Castello Lukeba, Artyon Ramaj, and Chaïm el Djebali.
Details of the Olympique Lyonnais academy
Upon his acquisition of the club in 1987, Jean-Michel Aulas dreamed of bringing trophies and European nights to a Lyon team that had up until that point been a largely irrelevant club bouncing between France’s first and second divisions.
Over the next 30 years, while European glory has escaped OL, the club has established itself as a French footballing power largely through its ability to create a consistent stream of talent from its academy to the first team.
Underpinning the success of Lyon’s academy has been their keen eye not just for the local city area, but outreach to other clubs in the Rhône-Alpes region of France. Meanwhile, they also employ scouts that scour France hoping to bring the cream of the crop to their academy: one example of this was Hatem Ben Arfa, unearthed in the suburbs of Paris.
The sheer number of good players produced by the academy since the early days of Govou-Benzema-Ben Arfa is quite astonishing. At least 30 players from the academy have played at least some senior football since 2008, with some of them going on to net the club monstrous transfer windfalls.
The products of the academy are particularly interesting as well. Lyon does not produce the homogenous footballer churned out by the academies of Barcelona or Ajax – typically technically strong footballers taught to play short passing, possession-oriented styles.
Instead, you get skilful attackers in the mould of Cherki, Fekir and Benzema, mobile forwards in the style of Lacazette and Martial, industrious goal-scoring midfielders like Tolisso, well-rounded eights like Aouar, high intensity holding midfielders like Caqueret, and classy centre-backs like Samuel Umtiti.
Notable former PSG academy players include Kingsley Coman, Adrien Rabiot, Mamadou Sakho, Christoper Nkunku, Yacine Adli, Moussa Diaby, Patrice Evra, Nicolas Anelka, Tanguy Kouassi, Adil Aouchiche, Odsonne Edouard, Mike Maignan, Boubakaray Soumaré, Timothy Weah, Stanley N’Soki, Antoine Bernède, Jean-Kévin Augustin, Jonathan Ikoné, and Alphonse Areola.
PSG academy players part of the current first-team set-up include Colin Dagba, Éric Ebimbe, and Presnel Kimpembe.
Players to watch coming out of the PSG academy include El Chadaille Bitshiabu, Ismaël Gharbu, Arnaud Kalimuendo, Edouard Michut, and many more.
Details of the Paris Saint-Germain Academy
The Paris Saint-Germain academy has always been strong, but over the last decade, it has emerged as one of Europe’s leading talent developers. This has coincided with an explosion of talent emerging from the Île-de-France region of France in which Paris is located.
In many ways, the story of Paris Saint-Germain’s academy is the story of Île-de-France, comprising a sprawling metropolis which, outside of the glitz and glamour of parts of Paris, is home to a huge population of socially disadvantaged people largely from immigrant backgrounds.
Much like we think of South American players developing their talents playing street football, many of Paris Saint-Germain’s finest academy graduates have honed their skills playing in the various housing estates littered across Île-de-France.
The result? An eclectic mix of Paris Saint-Germain academy graduates, from the electric speed and technical quality of Diaby, to the creativity of Adli, to the size and athleticism of Kimpembe.
For all the success of the academy though, the club has largely struggled to integrate its finest products into the first team.
While Kimpembe has been a bedrock of the modern Paris Saint-Germain, the club has leaked enormous amounts of talent in recent times, with Adli, Diaby, Nkunku, Maignan, Soumaré, Kouassi, Edouard and Aouchiche being just a tiny selection of academy players that have left the club over the last decade.
FC RED BULL SALZBURG
Notable former FC Red Bull Salzburg academy players include Mergim Berisha, Ante Ćorić, Flavius Daniliuc, Martin Hinteregger, Stefan Ilsanker, Konrad Laimer, Stefan Lainer, Valentino Lazaro, Alexander Schlager, Xaver Schlager, Stefan Schwab, Dominik Szoboszlai, Hannes Wolf, and many more.
Former FC Red Bull Salzburg academy players part of the current first-team set-up include Junior Adamu, Karim Adeyemi, Nicolas Seiwald, and Luka Sučić.
Players to watch coming out of the FC Red Bull Salzburg academy include Forson Amankwah, Dijon Kameri, Maurits Kjærgaard, Bryan Okoh, Roko Šimić, and plenty more.
Details of the FC Red Bull Salzburg
For all the ethical questions that plague the vast network of football clubs propped up by a global energy drinks company to market their product, it’s undeniable that their sporting model is a leading example of meticulous planning and efficient execution.
Youth development is the lifeblood of the Red Bull model. Their principle plan is to nurture young talent in order to turn significant profits, establishing a constant cycle of talent and sale. It’s predicated on two key aspects that pretty much defines the system: development and recruitment. Not only have they established an impressive academy set-up, with a defined and recognised Red Bull style, that produces high-level players and coaches, they supplement it with aggressive recruitment of high-level talents (typically aged between 15 and 18) from external markets.
Xaver Schlager is an example of the former, while Erling Braut Haaland is an example of the latter. Both sum up the intense, all-action Red Bull style, both are currently important players at competitive Bundesliga clubs, and both generated significant profits for the system. Schlager was a leading talent all the way through his academy development, impressing for the UEFA Youth League-winning team before breaking into the senior set-up. As for Haaland, he was signed for a significnt seven-figure fee from Molde FK and spent just over a year at Salzburg, blowing up into a global superstar in the process. It’s a two-pronged attack.
Their recruitment covers most continents too, mirroring the club network. Salzburg has provided a pathway for African and east Asian talent in particular. The club has strong platforms in Mali, Ghana, Japan and South Korea, with a number of players from those nations passing through the club. Liverpool’s Takumi Minamino was brought to Europe by Salzburg, as was Wolves’ Hee Chang-hwang and RB Leipzig’s Amadou Haidara.
Moreover, the structures Red Bull have in place are conducive for planning and development. At Salzburg for instance, there are two professional teams: Red Bull Salzburg of course, and FC Liefering, a small satellite club owned and run under the same umbrella. Operating in Austria’s second division, Liefering acts as the entry-level team of their multi-club system, providing players and coaches a platform to learn the Red Bull way and break into senior football. Almost every Salzburg success (whether academy or recruited) has spent time at Liefering, including Dominik Szoboszlai and Karim Adeyemi. Once players excel at Salzburg, many often scale the Red Bull ladder even further, stepping up to Leipzig in the Bundesliga. It’s an exceptional system that will keep producing results.
RIGHT TO DREAM & FC NORDSJæLLAND
Notable former Right to Dream and FC Nordsjælland academy players include David Accam, Clinton Antwi, Isaac Atanga, Mikkel Damsgaard, Godsway Donyoh, Nikolai Baden Frederiksen, Marcus Ingvartsen, Mathias Jensen, Mohamed Kudus, Abdul Majeed Waris, Emre Mor, Abdul Mumin, Mads Pedersen, Victor Nelsson, Andreas Skov Olsen, Kamal Sowah, Kamaldeen Sulemana, among many others.
Right to Dream academy players part of the current FC Nordsjælland first-team set-up include Simon Adingra, Magnus Kofod Andersen, Jacob Christensen, Tochi Chukwuani, Mohamed Diomandé, Abu Francis, Ibrahim Sadiq, Oliver Villadsen, and Maxwell Woledzi.
Players to watch coming out of the Right to Dream academy include Andreas Bredahl, Adamo Nagalo, Emeka Nnamani, and plenty more.
Details of the right to dream & fc nordsjælland academy
In almost every instance, football clubs own the youth academies. In the specific case of Right to Dream and FC Nordsjælland, the academy owns the club. It’s a dynamic that is practically unique at the highest level of football.
Right to Dream are a not-for-profit organisation based in Ghana, set-up by former Manchester United scout Tom Vernon as a small scale operation in 1999. Since then, it’s developed into an world-leading academy. RTD have three locations across two contients – the original Ghana base, Farum in Denmark, and a brand-new facility in Egypt – and have produced numerous high-level players, many of which have become senior internationals. They also established the first dedicated women’s academy programme in African football.
The academy purchased FC Nordsjælland in 2015 and have since shaped it into a club that places unbreakable faith in young players, the vast majority of which come through their youth set-up. As Flemming Pedersen, FCN’s head coach, put it: “We are not normal, but I really like not to be normal.” Over the past few seasons in particular, FCN have consistently fielded teams with an average age of 21-and-under, primarily made up of Danish and west African (Ghanaian, Ivorian) prospects.
Since 2017, Right to Dream and FC Nordsjælland have sold a number of home-grown prospects for significant sums of money. Emre Mor was the firs big sale, leaving for Borussia Dortmund in 2016 for a club-record fee; Mathias Jensen was another, moving to RC Celta Vigo before settling at Brentford; Mikkel Damsgaard and Andreas Skov Olsen both left for Serie A for a combined €12 million; Mohamed Kudus, a player that is truly representative of the RTD programme, was picked up by AFC Ajax. Kamaldeen Sulemana, an exceptional talent and posterboy of the club, will be the next.
Right to Dream’s goal is to develop socially-focused, purpose-driven leaders. They improve people, not just footballers, by providing stability, education and options. While many will focus on reaching FC Nordsjælland and beyond, others opt to take up college scholarships in the USA or UK to further their education. Right to Dream’s impact is much broader than just football – but they’ll continue to produce high-level young players for the foreseeable future.
What is a football academy?
Football academies are centres in which clubs train young players, often from within a local catchment area, but also sometimes from around the world. Football clubs create academies in order to foster and develop the best players to bring through to their senior teams, giving them a footballing education grounded the clubs philosophy and ethos.
For some clubs, like FC Barcelona and AFC Ajax, the academy has become central to the structure of the club, with academy graduates regularly forming a core within the senior squad.
What is life in a football academy like?
Every academy is different. There are high-level academies that operate almost at a professional level that also provide educational facilities and services. For example, Right to Dream in Ghana effectively functions as a boarding school, as well as an elite academy. But other academies are more low-key, functioning primarily
Players are targeted at different ages too. Academies such as Real Sociedad’s, tend to allow players in the region to remain embedded in their local clubs and communities until they are teenagers, while many other academies target players from as young as eight years old.
What is the best football academy in England?
Chelsea’s academy has developed a huge group of professional footballers in the last decade or so. Being situated in a great catchment area like London helps, but the club’s focus on professionalism and great coaching from a young age has reaped big dividends. Chelsea’s willingness to loan players is also a net benefit for them as individuals, even if it isn’t necessarily conducive to their integration into the first team.
What is the best football academy in Spain?
Barcelona and their youth academy have become synonymous with each other. But it’s not just player development, with the club’s La Masia academy being famed for embedding a philosophy within their graduates; playing technical football with a focus on retaining possession.
What is the best football academy in Germany?
Schalke do not have the big name of Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich, but have had one of the most productive academy set-ups in the world for a long time. Manuel Neuer, Mesut Özil, and Leroy Sané are just a small collection of players to have emerged from Schalke, with the club producing a host of strong professionals consistently over the last few decades.
What is the best football academy in France?
The emergence of Paris Saint-Germain’s academy has been something of a recent phenomenon. The club has developed good players in the past, Nicolas Anelka being chief amongst them, but recent crops, including the likes of Presnel Kimpembe, Yacine Adli, Moussa Diaby, Christopher Nkunku, Adrien Rabiot, Kingsley Coman, Adil Aouchiche, and many more, have been laden with talent.
What is the best football academy in Italy?
Atalanta’s emergence has not just been fuelled by great signings and an elite manager. For many years, their academy has developed a host of players that they find through links within the local community in Bergamo, and increasingly from abroad, with players such as Amad Diallo and Dejan Kulusevski coming through the club in recent years.
What is the best football academy in the United States?
It is difficult to keep count of the amount of American players who are landing in Europe. FC Dallas have been one of MLS’ premiere exporters of talent, with Reggie Cannon, Weston McKennie and Chris Richards starting their careers with the club.
What is the best football academy in Belgium?
The club of Vincent Kompany, Youri Tielemans, Dries Mertens, Dennis Praet and Romelu Lukaku, and now of Albert Sambi Lokonga and Yari Verschaeren, Anderlecht have been fuelling the Belgian national team, and many of Europe’s top clubs, with high-level talent for many years.
What is the best football academy in the Netherlands?
There might not be a club with a finer, or longer, list of academy products. To illustrate this point, just in the last five years Ajax have seen Sergiño Dest, Matthijs de Ligt, Ryan Gravenberch, Devyne Rensch, Brian Brobbey, Donny Van de Beek and Jurriën Timber come through De Toekomst. The academy places huge emphasis on technical quality, helping them to create senior-ready players irrespective of their physical qualities.