When discussing the nurturing of footballing talent, it’s worth taking a look at Valencian football. The region in the east of Spain is one where people live and breathe football and have done for as long as can be remembered, and while Valencia may be the most well-known side from the region, Levante UD and Villarreal CF are two clubs with a long-standing tradition and, crucially, a thriving youth development porgramme.
As the two prepare to face off in a local LaLiga Santander derby this Sunday at 9pm CET, let’s take a look at just how successful they’ve been in developing the stars of tomorrow.
Villarreal CF’s indisputable backing of youth
Villarreal boast one of the best youth academies in Spanish and European football, bringing through the likes of Santi Cazorla and Bruno Soriano. Soriano recently hung up his boots, leaving homegrown centre-back Pau Torres, one of the most in-demand defenders in the world, to pick up the baton for the Villarreal academy graduates.
Right now, there are eight homegrown players in the Villarreal first team in addition to Torres. They have promising players like Yeremi Pino, Fer Niño, Samuel Chukwueze as well as already-established ones such as Alfonso Pedraza, Manu Trigueros and Moi Gómez. Add in Gerard Moreno, the top Spanish scorer in LaLiga Santander this season and a veteran of the club’s youth team set-up, and you’ve got an undeniable recipe for success. In the past, the likes of Héctor Font, César Arzo and Xisco Nadal were given opportunities there too, which goes to show that a good youth development plan can be the base for one of the most solid projects in LaLiga Santander.
The sporting complex at Villarreal (opened in 2002, but constantly evolving) is at the heart of all the Yellow Submarine’s activities and is a reference for the world of football. The facilities extend across 80,000 square metres, and boast nine football pitches, sporting equipment for all needs, a residency for around one hundred youth teamers and club offices. What this means is that all areas of the club are together in the same space, supporting each other constantly. There’s even a space for a travel agency at the complex. There’s also a second sporting complex, called the Ciudad Deportivo Pamesa, that is used by CD Roda, a relevant local club that has a collaboration agreement with Villarreal. By backing youth football so thoroughly and decisively, Villarreal have recently enjoyed successes such as winning the juvenil level Copa de Campeones (2015) and the juvenil level Copa del Rey (2019).
Levante UD envy nobody
They also know what they’re doing at Levante. The Granotas are yet another Valencian Community club to have backed youth coaching and to have made this a fundamental pillar of their project. They have a success story in the form of José Luis Morales, the current captain and top scorer of the first team. Others are coming through, though, such as goalkeeper Dani Cárdenas, who earned nationwide praise this season for his excellent performance against Atlético de Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. This season, Georgian youth graduate Giorgi Kochorashvili has also made his debut, doing so in December against Real Betis and even playing all 90 minutes of a senior Copa del Rey match at Portugalete.
Perhaps, though, the clearest link between the Levante first team and their academy is seen through their coach Paco López. He was promoted to his current role after previously coaching the B team and he has now cemented his status as a club icon with the Granotas’ senior side by making them one of the toughest teams in all of LaLiga Santander.
There are various Levante academy graduates, meanwhile, who have gone on to star at other clubs in LaLiga Santander such as the now-retired Juanfran García, Sergio Ballesteros and current Villarreal midfielder Vicente Iborra.