Prestige not pounds key for NextGen
Parc des Princes, Olympiastadion, Brisbane Road. Among the hosts of inaugural European football finals, the humble home of League One club Leyton Orient sticks out like a Primark-clad model at Milan Fashion Week - the unglamorous anomaly in a collection of cultured beauties. But as the old adage goes, 'it's what's on the inside that counts', and three days ago, the simple surrounds of the East London stadium hosted the climax of a competition that could represent the most significant development to the European football landscape since the Champions League arrived in 1992.
The NextGen Series not so much burst as gently crept onto the scene last August as a new tournament designed to pit some of Europe's most talented young players against each other in what would essentially be an Under-19s Champions League. It was the brainchild of Brentford sporting director Mark Warburton, who said at the time: "We want to fill a void. Apart from an exceptional few capable of jumping straight into first teams, many promising academy graduates have not been provided with enough consistent high-quality challenges. We think we can avoid wasting talent by helping more young players reach senior level."
If the first season set out to fulfil that final premise alone, then NextGen is awash with success stories. From Lorenzo Crisetig and Davy Klassen being handed senior Champions League bows by Inter Milan and Ajax respectively to Raheem Sterling making his Premier League debut for Liverpool last weekend; in creating a more competitive and frankly more alluring environment than domestic youth and reserve leagues, NextGen certainly gave a platform for teenagers to demonstrate their ability and ultimately step up.
If a large smattering of promoted players wasn't enough of a ringing endorsement for the newly-conceived competition, then Massimo Moratti's decision to appoint Inter Milan Primavera manager Andrea Stramaccioni as the club's new first-team coach on Monday certainly provided a hefty helping of good publicity. Just 24 hours after shunning Inter's Derby d'Italia clash with Juventus in favour of watching the Nerazzurri's youngsters beat Ajax in the NextGen final, Moratti handed the senior reins to the man who masterminded the academy's rise to prominence.
And with Inter having little left to play for in what has been a season of untenable underachievement, there is a real possibility that Stramaccioni could fast-track some of his starlets into the first-team. The likes of commanding defender Marek Kysela, midfield general Joseph Duncan and tricky trequartista Daniel Bessa all caught the eye in the NextGen series and though there have been few examples of such progression in recent years, the next Giuseppe Bergomi could well be among Inter's new champions.
That certainly seemed to be the hope of the supporters who attended Sunday's final at Leyton Orient. London's large Italian community was out in force, bringing a vibrant and vocal presence that was most apparent during a pulsating penalty shootout, which saw Ajax's Joel Veltman miss the decisive spot-kick to hand Inter the trophy. The match represented a microcosm of Dutch and Italian football, with Ajax's technically gifted players dominating possession but ultimately falling short against a disciplined Inter side, who were resolute in defence and demonstrated sterling fitness levels after left-back Ibrahima Mbaye was sent off in the 70th minute.
"With Inter's first team performing so poorly this year, many fans started following the Primavera with more and more interest," LSE student and Inter fan Christopher Dowling explained to ESPNsoccernet after the final. "The Italian media had talked a lot about the final, particularly as Moratti would be present and we have a London-based Inter fan club that made sure support would be loud and colourful. I felt that Inter played a little too much like, well, Inter, keeping a very strong defensive line with most players in our own half and creating chances only on counter attack. However when we were reduced to 10 men I was very impressed with the team's strength and concentration. The commitment shown by the lads reminded me a lot of the mentality that Inter's first team had with Mourinho and it was great to finally see our black and blue colours lift a trophy again."
While Inter's jubilant players hoisted Stramaccioni above their heads and even over-exuberantly broke a light in the tunnel, their opponents in red and white were wondering how they had not delivered on their promise as tournament favourites and furthered the Ajax academy's legacy as the hotbed for European talent. They boasted the competition's top scorer in Victor Fischer but the attacking midfielder, whose style is comparable to highly-rated Danish compatriot Christian Eriksen, endured a frustrating 120 minutes at Brisbane Road, failing to add to his tally of seven goals. Along with Sporting, Ajax emerged as the tournament's great entertainers and thrashed Liverpool 6-0 in the semi-finals but, just as their Portuguese counterparts succumbed to Inter in the last-eight, so a lack of ruthlessness cost the Dutch side against the Nerazzurri's well-drilled unit.
As the dust settles on the first NextGen Series, the speculation inevitably begins about the competition's future. Organisers have already revealed that 24 clubs - it was 16 this season - will participate next time, with Chelsea recently confirmed and Arsenal set to rubber-stamp their involvement soon. The other six clubs are thought to include Spartak Moscow and FC Porto, while Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Juventus are all understandably being courted.
Former Juve midfielder Patrick Vieira was one of several famous faces in attendance at the final - Robin Van Persie and Thomas Vermaelen also watched the game with their families - and he was chosen to present the winners' trophy. Vieira, whose current role with Manchester City includes overseeing the evolution of the club's academy, has been one of the most vocal advocates of NextGen since its inception and he feels there is no reason why it can't be Europe's pre-eminent youth football tournament from now on.
"It has been a really exciting tournament and it was a great final, full of tension," Vieira told ESPNsoccernet. "I think we saw two different types of approach and it was maybe not the best final in terms of a football spectacle but it was a captivating contest and this is one of the best ways for these young players to learn - in a hard-fought, competitive atmosphere. For the first tournament it has been really successful and everybody believes that it can get even bigger and better."
How it gets 'better' is a contentious issue. It's understood that affiliation with UEFA is already in the pipeline which, if it materialises, would make the competition the official little brother of the Champions League and legitimise it in the eyes of potential sponsors and TV companies. UEFA endorsement, coupled with the expansion and potential inclusion of European giants like Real, Bayern and United would certainly cement the NextGen brand, making it a very appealing proposition indeed for investors.
However, caution must be exercised. One can forgive the organisers of NextGen for dreaming of just how big their product can become, but there is a real risk that the ideals behind its creation could be abandoned. Sunday's final was not played in front of a 90,000 capacity Wembley crowd for a multi-million pound prize; Inter Milan and Ajax's youngsters played with panache, passion and put their bodies on the line through 120 gruelling minutes simply for the honour of being recognised as the pick of their peers. While selling out or selling up would be tempting, NextGen must do its utmost to preserve its integrity and protect itself from football's lecherous money men. For once in modern football, prestige not pounds should be the governing principle.