Italy's under-developed youth system
You "win nothing with kids", as television pundit Alan Hansen once famously said, but, in Italy, the leading teams of the Serie A appear to have taken the idea a step too far.
A scan down the top scorer charts in one of Europe's biggest and most popular leagues reveals that the average age of the top ten is nearly 28 years old. AC Milan's Alexandre Pato (19) brings that average down significantly and a division that is often perceived as being slow and methodical is attracting criticism for not developing young players.
One of the problems with this is that it is far too easy for other European clubs to poach the star performers of a Italian club's youth team. The Italian system currently prevents young players from putting pen to paper before their 18th birthday, allowing Europe's elite to offer up lucrative terms (with the promise of locating their families and friends to the new country) and a guaranteed deal when they turn 17.
English clubs only have to satisfy a rule which states that Academy players over the age of 11 must live within a 90-minute radius, which is easy to do when you can uproot a youngster from his home country and place him within the catchment area. Added to that, the financial terms can be at least five times the size of that on offer from their home club.
Lazio, for example, lost out when 17-year-old striking sensation Federico Macheda was pinched from their Academy system by Manchester United, before he was able to sign a professional deal once he turned 18. Roma have also suffered from United's scouting network when they had to watch 16-year-old forward Davide Petrucci leave for Old Trafford for a paltry sum of £200,000 last year.
And it's not a new phenomenon. In 2005, United snapped up Giuseppe Rossi from Parma and, although he did not ultimately make the grade with the Premier League club, he was eventually sold to Villarreal in 2007 for around £6.6m. While Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique were plucked from Spanish club Barcelona via a similar rule.
"We tried in every way to stop Manchester United from taking away our player but the present Italian regulations don't give you any type of defence," Lazio president Claudio Lotito said of Macheda. "In reality we find ourselves in front of a proper cattle market.''
But another issue that hinders a young player's development is the philosophy of the Italian clubs. How many of the top teams have actually given youth a chance before they choose to leave for foreign shores?
The answer is not many. The Italian way requires young players to mature slowly, gradually being accommodated while they continue to develop their mental and physical skills. Very few Italian players make their debuts for the national side before they are around 23; and even fewer become regulars before they hit 25.
Italian U21 coach Pierluigi Casiraghi has criticised the blooding of young stars in the past, saying: "I am sure that if Cesc Fabregas, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were in Serie A, they'd play regularly as well, although they certainly would not have been given their debuts in these big clubs at 17. They could've had to wait a few more years."
It is not unusual for Italian clubs to miss out on the next Messi or Fabregas because of this standpoint but Jose Mourinho, last week, made it clear that during the summer he would be clearing out a lot of the older stars from his Inter Milan squad. Yes, success has come from collecting a lot of experienced internationals; Mourinho is trying to bring a new philosophy to the league.
"Inter have great players that were amazing in their best ages, but this team has too many players who are above 33 and 34 years old. That's not what I want,'' said the Portuguese boss. "I want to develop young players and create an Inter with ambitions for the future."
Inter have already started to build for the future and, in Davide Santon, the club may have found a replacement for the 35-year-old Javier Zanetti. The defender, who can play at either left or right-back, is a rare breed: a prospect who has come through the ranks of the youth team and has been thrust into action aged just 18.
Santon only made his Serie A debut in late January 2009, but showed enough potential for Mourinho to state: ''I think that he can become the new Maldini, Zanetti or Facchetti for Inter over the next 10-15 years." Still, Mourinho may find it tough and, looking at the likes of Milan, Juventus and Roma, it is easy to see why some young players seek their futures elsewhere when they are not given the chance to shine.
Juventus face a dilemma in the near future with the prospect of replacing Alessandro Del Piero and Pavel Nedved. Czech international Nedved has already decided to call it quits at the end of the 2008-09 season and a campaign has been set up by some of the club's fans to try and persuade the influential midfielder to continue playing.
The fact that the Bianconeri are struggling to find a replacement for the 36-year-old says as much about the star quality of the player as it does about their lack of investment in youth. Nedved has claimed himself that he would like to make way for the development of young players at the club, but there are none who could step into his boots now.
Linked with a move for Valencia wideman David Silva, the club have also reportedly been tracking the performances of Werder Bremen star Diego as well as Napoli's Marek Hamsik, who has impressed in the league this season. But nowhere to be seen is there a youngster from within the ranks to take over Nedved's mantle, with the blossoming talent of Antonio Nocerino and Raffaele Palladino sold on in the summer.
While Nedved may be a big miss, the club shouldn't struggle to replace icon Alessandro Del Piero. The diminutive #10 is a legend in Turin, but 5'4'' Sebastian Giovinco is already being touted to be his successor, with Claudio Marchisio also in the picture. A series of fine performances has seen Giovinco establish himself more in the first-team after being loaned out to Empoli last season and the 22-year-old has benefited from additional playing time this year, although has still only started nine games.
AC Milan may offer the best example of a club that desperately needs to focus on the future. The style of the league, and also the impressive training facilities at the San Siro, have allowed the likes of Paolo Maldini (40) and Filippo Inzaghi (35) to continue to play at the top of the game for years; it cannot last much longer.
Inzaghi netted his 300th goal for the club last month, but to persevere much longer with the 35-year-old would be crazy. The overriding feeling is that the club may lose out on the likes of Marco Borriello or Daniele Bonera if they continue to commit themselves to playing their ageing stars. Let alone being able to persuade a new breed of young players to join the side - which they will have to do this summer.
The club have already failed to nurture the talent of Alberto Paloschi and Yoann Gourcuff and you have to ask if, as a youngster, you would want to join the club of your dreams only to be immediately sent out on loan.
Indeed, it's a simple fact that while English players will hail a new superstar like Wayne Rooney or Theo Walcott as soon as they make the breakthrough, Italian clubs are far less liable to increase the hype (and the pressure) on a young player by throwing them into the mix. There are always exceptions - Paolo Maldini, Giuseppe Bergomi and Gianluigi Buffon to name a few - but the majority of Serie A's youth are allowed to develop in the lower half of the league, when they have past their teenage years.
It may be no bad thing. The average age of the Italy squad that lifted the World Cup in 2006 was close to 30 and the Azzurri are second only to Brazil in the number of titles won at international level, so the philosophy may be working. But, with this in mind, there can be little argument when a young Italian player turns up at another club in Europe and goes on to bigger and better things.