IS THERE a better sight in football than when a young star announces himself to the world via a fine performance or a brilliant goal.
20-year-old Kylian Mbappe burst onto the scene with an incredible Champions League performance against Manchester City in 2017. He then starred at the World Cup last summer, scoring fours goals (including one in the final) as France went on to lift the grandest prize of them all.
He’s widely regarded as the one who can take over the crown from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo once their days are officially numbered. But had it not been for the youth academy set-up at Monaco, we may never have known his true potential.
Here, I take a look at some of the clubs from around the world who have helped produce some of the finest footballers of years gone by. Aside from the obvious candidates of Barcelona, Manchester United and Ajax who have gone on to create many, many top quality players, here’s my list of those clubs you may not realise have given us world class stars.
One of South America’s most effective clubs when it comes to producing quality youth players over the past 20 years (and beyond that too).
Santos have been responsible for a long-list of some of Brazil’s greatest footballers. In fact, they may have even been responsible for producing the greatest footballer of all time – the one and only Pele. The legendary forward, widely regarded as the greatest player who ever lived, started out at Santos and went onto spend 18 year with the club, scoring 619 goals in 638 matches before joining American side New York Cosmos in 1975.
In terms of more recent talent produced at the club, from 2000 onward, there have been a number of players who have gone onto enjoy successful careers in Europe’s top leagues.
Talented midfielder Ganso, once rated as the next big thing in football, may have not quite had the career those in Brazil had hoped for him, but nevertheless he’s a quality player who secured a move to La Liga with Sevilla in 2016.
Another former player – Elano (left, below) – was a firm favourite amongst Manchester City fans. The midfielder spent two years (2007-09) in the Premier League and was known for scoring some spectacular long range goals. Fellow midfielder and Santos graduate Diego (right, below) was regarded as one of the most underrated midfielders in Europe during his time at Bundesliga side Werder Bremen (2006-2009). His vision and creativity earned him a move to Italian giants Juventus and he also went onto play in Spain with Atletico Madrid and Turkey with Fenerbahce.
Current West Ham star Felipe Anderson ,who has really stood out in the Premier League this season, also started out at Santos and so did up and coming Inter Milan striker Gabriel Barbosa.
Perhaps the two most well-known graduates however (aside from Pele) are the highly-skilled duo of Neymar and Robinho. Two of the most recognisable Brazilian faces of the 21st century, the pair are known for their flair and skills on the ball and have gone onto play for the biggest clubs in the world.
Robinho (below) was a joy to watch on the ball and eventually secured a dream move to Real Madrid in 2005, where he went on to win two La Liga titles. The tricky winger became Manchester City’s first “big signing” of their emergence as Premier League title contenders following a takeover in 2008. He also won the Serie A in Italy with AC Milan in 2010-11 and is now playing for Turkish side Istanbul Basaksehir.
Neymar (pictured below during his Santos days) burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old when playing for Santos. His mazy dribbling and ways to beat defenders were unrivalled and so it was no surprise to see him eventually move onto Barcelona, where he officially became a superstar. A £222m move to filthy rich Paris Saint-Germain followed in 2017, where he has already hit 32 goals in just 33 games to date. These days, he’s rarely out of the news due to his controversial personality, hairstyles and the fact that he now captains his country too.
You only have to look at Belgium’s World Cup squad of last summer to realise just how successful the Anderlecht youth academy has been over recent years.
The Belgium side has grown tremendously strong over the last 10 years and Anderlecht’s youth programme has played a huge role in the national team’s development.
Vincent Kompany (below) arguably led the way in terms of being the first “big fish” to leave the pond and move onto bigger things. The centre back moved to Hamburg in January in 2006, but after two years there, he would move onto Manchester City, where he became a household name in the Premier League. Establishing himself as City captain at a time where they were only just emerging as a top team, Kompany went onto eventually lead the club to three Premier League titles and became one of the best defenders in the world at one time.
He’s not the only Anderlecht graduate who will be a familiar face to fans of English football however. Striker Romelu Lukaku may have his critics, but the truth is, he scores goals wherever he goes. The strong attacker has bagged 109 goals in 241 PL appearances for Chelsea, West Brom, Everton and current club Manchester United. Whilst he was a youngster at Anderlecht, club officials rated his goal-scoring abilities highly and he certainly proved them right on that.
Two of the most promising names to come through the ranks recently are Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker. The former, a 21-year-old central midfielder, is widely-regarded as one of the brightest young talents in football due to his movement and vision. He secured a £25m move to Monaco in 2017. The latter has spent this season on loan at Premier League side Wolves and can play as a centre back or as a holding midfielder.
Other notable names to come out of the famed Belgian side’s academy include Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Dries Mertens (Napoli), Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad), and Michy Basthuayi (Chelsea).
The Saints have a long and proud history of producing great players, even if they do eventually end up selling them on.
Aside from the larger clubs in England, your Chelsea’s, your Arsenal’s, your United’s etc, Southampton seem to have been the club who has had the best set up in terms of introducing youth players into the first team/to the world in recent years.
The competition for the most notable one might be a tough one to call however. The first big name on the list was the legendary Matt Le Tissier (below) who wowed Premier League fans between 1986 and 2002 with his flair and beautiful goals – many of which have gone down in English football history. He scored 161 goals in 443 Premier League game for The Saints and is widely-regarded as one of the best strikers the English game has ever seen.
Speaking of the best English strikers – the man who is arguably the greatest of them all also happened to come from Southampton’s incredible youth set-up. Alan Shearer (below left) to this day remains the highest goalscorer in Premier League history with 283 goals to his name and, although only 23 of those came whilst at Southampton, the club can certainly be credited for giving him the chance to showcase his talents to the world.
Thirdly, you have the magnificent Gareth Bale (below right). Having started out as a defender at St. Mary’s, the Welshman eventually went onto play as a winger for Tottenham Hotspur, where he established himself as a world-beater, in particular via a stunning performance against Inter Milan in 2010, in which he scored a hat-trick. His incredible work-rate, ability to score goals regularly and his amazing burst of pace, earned him a move to (arguably) the greatest club in the world – Real Madrid – in 2013. 75 goals in 143 La Liga games and four Champions League titles later, it’s fair to say the 29-year-old has enjoyed quite the career.
A whole host of other familiar Premier League names have come from the Southampton academy too. Liverpool’s duo of Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were held in high regard, as were Wayne Bridge (Chelsea/Manchester City) and Calum Chambers (now at Arsenal). Theo Walcott’s move from Southampton to Arsenal when he was just 16 years old in 2006 highlighted the success of the former’s youth system. He has since gone on to play over 300 Premier League matches and is now at Everton.
Southampton still to this day continue to produce top talent. Midfielder James Ward-Prowse, who has well and truly secured a place in his side’s starting line-up, seems to be the perfect midfielder in terms of creating chances, scoring goals etc. Fellow midfielder Jake Hesketh and forward Michael Obafemi are two of the up and coming names at the club at the moment.
Ajax and PSV get all the credit for producing the best players over in the Netherlands, however, it’s fair to say that Feyenoord have also had their fare share.Former Arsenal man and Dutch captain Gio Van Bronckhorst came through the ranks in the 1990’s. The versatile defender/midfielder went on to play for Spanish giants Barcelona (where he won the Champions League), played in Scotland with Rangers and earned himself 106 caps for the Netherlands.
Another former Arsenal man (although they don’t like to mention his name) – Robin Van Persie (below) – also started out in his hometown of Rotterdam. After moving to North London in 2003, his raw potential as a lethal forward was plain to see, even if the injuries did plague him at times. After scoring 96 times in 194 PL appearances for The Gunners, he angered fans when he made a move to bitter rivals Manchester United in 2012. It proved to be the right one however, as he won the league in 2012-13. The 35-year-old, who also earned 102 caps for his country, returned to Feyenoord in 2018 and has bagged 15 goals in just 27 Eredivisie appearances since.
A whole host of other former Feyenoord faces who will be familiar to Premier League fans include Jordie Clasie (Southampton), Bruno Martins Indi (Stoke), Jonathan De Guzman (Swansea City), Leroy Fer (QPR/Swansea City), and the current quintet of Daryl Janmaat (Watford), Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool), Nathan Ake (Bournemouth) and Terence Kongolo (Huddersfield).
Renowned defender Stefan De Vrij, who has played for Lazio and Inter Milan and earned 37 caps for the Netherlands also began his journey at Feyenoord. Notable academy names currently on the club’s first team roster include talented midfielder Tonny Vilhena and up and coming striker Dylan Vente.
SPORTING LISBON (PORTUGAL)
The final team on the list, but by no means the least important, in particular when it comes to supplying the Portuguese national team with fine footballing ammunition. Again, you would most likely expect Porto and Benfica to be the top dogs but Sporting have been prolific in terms of producing top talent over the years.
The greatest of them all was the one and only Cristiano Ronaldo (below). A man who needs no introduction, CR7 has been one of the best players to ever grace the game during his illustrious career. With a very, very long list of both personal and club honours, some of his highlights include winning five Ballon D’Or’s, guiding his country to Euro 2016 glory and winning the Champions League a total of five times with United and Madrid. He is also Portugal’s record goalscorer (85) and has bagged over 400 goals in his 16 year spell. The 33-year-old is still going strong today and is now plying his trade in Serie A (Italy) with Juventus.
Not only did Sporting produce the greatest Portuguese player of all time (alongside Eusebio perhaps?), but they also introduced the magnificent Luis Figo to the world too. Regarded as one of the most technically gifted midfielders of the last 30 years, Figo played for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Inter Milan and played 127 times for his country too. He also won the Ballon D’Or in 2000.
Plenty of other recognisable names first caught the eye whilst at Sporting too. Former Manchester United man Nani, who is now back at Sporting, is one of the most successful, whilst journeyman winger Ricardo Quaresma is another. Ex-Real Madrid defender Pepe, current Wolves star Joao Moutinho and former Southampton Jose Fonte and Cedric Soares also started their careers there. Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Eric Dier is another one you may not have expected to have come through the ranks at Sporting. He grew up in Portugal and spent several years at the club.