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By Tony Attwood
The idea of an under 18s Champions League built along the same lines as the mainstream competition was first reported (as far as I know) on the Datasport web site in Italy in 2009. Ever since there have been discussions going on, and the occasional rumours too, and finally it does seem to be about to happen.
So here’s what I know – which doesn’t mean all that follows is right, but hopefully with comments from those closer to the situation than me, we can get near the truth.
Arsenal FC and other clubs in Europe have been increasingly fed up with the issues relating to reserve and youth football in recent years. Such concerns include the tendency for reserve matches to be attended by scouts from other clubs ready to pluck young players, the incompatability of regulations across the EU over how and when young players can be signed up (clubs in Spain, as we know from recent events, cannot offer contracts to 16 year olds, while clubs in England can, while clubs in England can only sign youngsters from their area up to a certain age), and the fact that reserve teams in some countries (Spain, Germany etc) can benefit from playing in lower leagues in the pyramid, while in England they can’t.
Matters for Arsenal reached a head last summer when Arsenal suddenly withdrew from the reserve league, following the breakdown of negotiations over its restructure. The matter was finally saved, with the promise of changes in the future, and one major change now: the clubs could play many of their games behind closed doors, so as to avoid the scouts.
At the same time the issue of the under 18s was raised. At present, many of Arsenal’s under 18 players are shunted forwards into the first team squad, the loan squad or the reserve squad, instead of playing in the under 18 league, only returning to the under 18 fray for the Youth Cup games. And since the FA Youth Cup is a knock out competition, a freak goal in injury time can end interest in that trophy, and leave the under 18s without an under 18 competition to play in other than the league, which isn’t necessarily of a high enough standard. So the under 16s end up playing matches in the youth league.
It is against this background that the Youth Champions League has emerged. Partly it is an attempt to give Uefa more power and prestige, and indeed give them a say in the under 18 market, and partly it is an attempt to give the clubs a way of keeping their high flying under 18s happy. The point is, if you are a 17 year old genius footballer, you might not get a game at a big club, and so could be tempted to go to a smaller club just to get some experience. Now the message will be, play on the world stage, in the Youth Champions League. Younger players and those with later developing talent can be kept away from the limelight in the now largely private reserve league.
It is also possible that within this planning is the notion of restricting the loaning out of young talent. Players on loan might not be able to come back just for this competition – so going on loan means no Youth Champions League place for you. That is supposition on my part – and indeed in the FA Youth Cup players on loan can come back to play in this competition.
Thus if that rule is not changed Arsenal could put out a Youth Champions League side made up almost entirely of players on loan with Championship and League One sides, plus a few from overseas. Maybe we will see Wellington play for us after all next season?!? (I have no idea what the passport regulations would be on this!)
The original 2009 plan was hatched in Geneva at a meeting of the European Clubs Association and was to launch the competition for this season (2010/11) with the youth teams of the eight Champions League quarter-finalists playing each other a week earlier than the main matches.
That plan was abandoned and replaced by a 2011/12 scheme with the youth teams of all 32 clubs that make the Champions League group stages involved.
Now that plan seems to have been overturned and we have a new plan in which clubs are invited to play, or put themselves forwards to play, without there being a restriction on only having clubs from the Champions League in the competition.
All sorts of clubs have been put forward as participants: Ajax, Celtic, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and Sporting Lisbon were among the first names mentioned. In this plan there are four-team group stages, and a knock out thereafter, with the first group matches commencing in September 2011. One interesting regulation is that the matches must be played in the club’s main stadium, not behind closed doors, and not in the stadium used for reserve matches.
As part of the preparation for this plan two games took place this season. Celtic u18s played Liverpool under 18s and beat them 3-1, while Man City drew 1-1 with Ajax. Everyone seemed quite happy with the outcome.
So it seems that it will happen starting next September, and the word is that Arsenal are certainly going to be part of the scheme. All participants will play the six group games, and that means three more games at the Emirates. Arsenal have a good record in getting crowds for youth games at the Ems in the semi final and final of the Youth Cup, with crowds of around 30,000 seen on occasion so we can hope for a decent crowd.
But will it affect the current four tier structure of Arsenal (the 25, the on loans, the reserves and the youth side)? It could mean that the youth/reserve level becomes even more fluid than now, with players moving back and forth in order to get the right sort of games for their ability, and with the elite of the under 18s being used in the two cup competitions.
Just a final word on age however. The current regulations for the FA Youth Cup are (I believe) that only those players between the age of 15 and 18 on 31 August of the season being played are eligible to take part. There is no word yet (that I can find) to say if this is going to be the same in the youth champions league but if so our squad will be made up of young men aged 15 to 18 on 31 August 2011.
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