Lionel Messi started playing in his hometown team Club Atletico Newell’s Old Boys youth system at the age of 8. At 13, he moved, with his entire family to Spain where he trained and played at La Masia, Barcelona’s youth academy. Steven Gerrard joined Liverpool’s academy at 9. Cristiano Ronaldo signed with Sporting Club of Lisbon at 12. Andrea Pirlo made his Serie A debut for Brescia at the age of 16. Paul Pogba started playing for a club near his hometown in France at the age of 6, spending 7 seasons there. As with most sports, youth development in football is something that needs to take place from as early an age, particularly the basics.
To be given and to take advantage of the benefits that come with both training as well as doors being opened is the ‘pot of gold’ for any aspiring footballer. At the football training sessions my 9-year old son attends, the drill them to the point where everything becomes second nature. They teach the boys and girls comfort with the ball, the ability to literally think on your feet – without being overly focused on the ball -, decision making, how to dribble, pass and shoot, and so on. And the kids with the natural talent rise to the top quickly, once their bad habits are trained out of them.
Youth Development in South African football
Let’s be honest. Some of the challenges facing South African football, particularly at national level, are tied to youth development. Players out of South Africa that have reached the upper echelons of international football are limited to a handful of names, with Benni McCarthy being the only South African to actually win an UEFA Champions League medal. And, when you look at Europe’s top leagues, there is only Steven Pienaar playing in the English Premier League and he is probably set to move back to South Africa for the upcoming season. If, or when Pienaar does move, the only South African representative will be Tokelo Rantie, whose team Bournemouth were just promoted.
There have been theories around why this is the case from many a football expert – and non-experts such as myself – but I don’t think anyone can argue against greater youth development and provision of opportunity. Addressing is something that can’t be accomplished by one person, one organisation, one space – each activity or initiative helps. This is the thinking behind the Vodacom NXT LVL initiative and, to be honest, if my son was within the 14 to 16 age requirement, I would definitely ‘scout’ him for this.
Vodacom NXT LVL
The process is relatively straight forward. Register on the Vodacom NXT LVL site. Get someone to record you doing one of the four drills – which are shown on the site, for goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and strikers – and upload it. The 100 players with the most votes, regardless of position, will be invited to a football boot camp with football legends Shorty Ndludlu (former Banyana Banyana captain), Lucas Radede and Mark Fish. It is, therefore, important to get as many of your friends and family to vote for you to get the ball rolling.
Out of the boot camp, the best 32 players will be selected to play in a live exhibition match and the winning team will all get full scholarships to attend TUKS Sports High School.
To vote for any of the players, you also need to register.
Dreams do come true, even in a space as competitive as the football world. Often times, all we ever want, and need, is the opportunity to show what we can do and learn.