x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Horizons getting broader for next generation of football stars

NextGen organisers have no qualms with Uefa tournament and have plans for Middle East and Asia, writes Omar Al Raisi.

NextGen Series has helped players such as Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling become household names.
NextGen Series has helped players such as Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling become household names.

Uefa has confirmed it is to launch an Under 19 Champions League tournament, starting this season, in what would seem to be a major threat to the NextGen Series, the influential youth football tournament.

However, Justin Andrews, the co-founder of the NextGen Series, does not seem to be fazed by the challenge.

Andrews, along with Mark Warbuton, the director of Brentford FC, set up the NextGen Series in 2011.

It has helped players such as Liverpool's Raheem Sterling and Celtic's Tony Watt progress to first-team football.

The tournament takes the U19 teams from 24 clubs around Europe and pits them in a Champions League-style tournament – complete with travel, group stage and knockout rounds – with the aim of replicating the competitive environment of Europe's top club competition.

That is why Uefa's tournament, which will operate in much the same way, might have a negative impact on the NextGen series' progress.

"I don't think the Uefa Under 19 Champions League will affect the NextGen Series," said Andrews, who is a media professional and TV producer with many years of experience in the sports-media sector.

"Simply because, as per the rules of the U19 Champions League, [only] the clubs who qualify for the main Champions League can take part in the competition.

"But in the NextGen Series, we have teams who don't have the chance to get into the Champions League, like Aston Villa, who were the champions last season."

He outlined the differences in the two series.

The matches will be on different days; NextGen will feature 24 teams and Uefa 32; NextGen will replicate the Champions League format, with two legs in the knockout stages and the tiebreaker "away goal" rule.

The Uefa U19 league will play only one leg in the knockout stages.

However, the start of the Champions League may mean the cream of Europe's academies playing in that tournament.

Barcelona, Chelsea, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, Ajax and Manchester City all took part in the NextGen Series last season, yet are all qualified for the Champions League.

Andrews does not see it that way.

"Most clubs have big youth squads, as they are involved in many reserve and other age-group leagues throughout the year," he said.

"So they are capable of putting out two different teams to give players minutes on the pitch to develop, rather than for them to sit on the bench."

"All the 24 clubs who are involved with us have given us great feedback and are very happy to continue with us.

"They have seen significant improvement for their young academy players."

The preparations are in full swing for next season and Andrews has one eye on the UAE, Middle East and Asia, even though plans to host the semi-finals and finals of the tournament in Abu Dhabi last season did not come to fruition.

"We met Abu Dhabi Media Company and Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and presented them with our plan to host the finals in Abu Dhabi, but we were short of time to organise it.

"Instead we held the finals in Lake Como [Italy] at Stadio Giuseppe Sinigaglia.

"There are teams involved, TV and, of course, other logistical matters to be looked at.

"But now we have about 10 months to prepare and we are definitely interested in hosting the finals in Abu Dhabi if we get the opportunity."

The NextGen Series has struck television deals with the likes of Eurosport, ESPN and Fox Sports and there are plans to expand the tournament around Asia, Latin America and Australasia.

The Asian Football Confederation does not have a continental club youth competition.

Andrews believes it would be a good idea to take the NextGen Series to Asia.

"I think Asia is an exciting place when it comes to football.

"The fans are massive there, and that's why most of the big English clubs go there for pre-season tours – because of the huge following and demand.

"We have plans to take NextGen Series to Asia and Middle East, and I believe it will be great for their youth teams to have that experience of travelling, having the feel of Champions League games at an early age."

Andrews says organisers plan to "get in touch with Abu Dhabi and Dubai Sports Councils" to gauge interest in hosting the tournament.

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