Uefa has been accused of ruining European youth football and making it a closed shop for the biggest clubs with its plans for an Under-19s Champions League which will exclude some of the continent’s best academies.
The European governing body’s announcement that its Youth League is to become a permanent competition from next season has led to the indefinite abandonment of the NextGen tournament – which gave young players from Aston Villa, Liverpool and Tottenham the stage on which to face other top European academy sides, The Independent understands.
Though Uefa claims to be making its own competition more inclusive by extending it beyond the academies of Champions League sides, the only extra teams allowed entry will be the domestic youth champions of Uefa’s top-ranked 32 nations. If the youth champions are a club already qualified for the Champions League – as Chelsea were last year – their place will go to another nation.
One of the founders of NextGen, Justin Andrew, told The Independent he and his co-organisers had decided that they could not compete with the might of Uefa, who had appropriated their idea for a competition which will now exclude some of Britain’s best academies, including Everton, Villa and Southampton.
“The biggest injustice is that Uefa have killed what could have been a fantastic tournament for youth players,” Andrew said. “Entry to NextGen was based on the quality of youth teams, not on the quality of first teams. The tournament Uefa have created was designed to see us off and in any other business it would constitute an abuse of a dominant position. They have effectively said: ‘Thank you for the research. We’ve seen this works. Goodbye’.”
The relative lack of wealth outside of the European elite has seen some of the clubs now excluded by Uefa place themselves at the forefront of youth development. Villa beat Chelsea to win the second – and last – NextGen competition 18 months ago (pictured above), Graham Burke scoring twice in the final.
Clubs from smaller continental nations are equally concerned by the closed shop. The Netherlands, which has only one Champions League place, will have a maximum of two representatives – the academy side of the Eredivisie winners, who qualify for the Champions League, and their own youth champions.
Uefa said it believed its new format would create “wider representation”. Last week its club competitions committee chairman, Michael van Praag said: “We have set a high standard and we now expect it to get even better.”
How will it work?
The Youth League will double in size from next season, comprising 64 clubs. As this year, the 32 sides in the main Champions League will enter their academy outfits, and they will be joined by the domestic youth champions from Uefa’s 32 top-ranked national associations.
The new format is made up of two paths: one for Champions League teams, mirroring the seniors competition, and one for domestic youth champions.
If the youth champion has also qualified through the Champions League path – as with Chelsea last year – the space will be filled by a side from the next country down the rankings.
There will be two parallel paths of 32 teams, with the Champions League keeping the existing group structure. The 32 teams in the domestic-champions path play two two-legged knockout fixtures, with the eight winners advancing to play the eight group winners from the Champions League path.