x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The youngsters who let their football do the talking

Playing for the youth teams of big sides can mean travelling far from home. Ahmed Rizvi meets the promising prospects that carry the future expectations of their clubs.

Manchester City‘s Albert Rusnak, left, breaks away from Valencia’s Juan Carlos Mari.
Manchester City‘s Albert Rusnak, left, breaks away from Valencia’s Juan Carlos Mari.

When Albert Rusnak first arrived in England in early 2008, taken there by a scout from his native Slovakia, he was 13 years old and could not speak a word of English.

His impressive football skills, however, trumped the language barrier and the youngster earned a place at the Manchester City Academy.

The club enrolled him at a school and within a year he was speaking fluent English. On the pitch, his development matched his success at English, and the youngster blossomed under the tutelage of Steve Eyre, the then coach of City's youth team.

Rusnak, 17, is now a member of City's Elite Development Squad (EDS), and hopes to make his first team debut soon. He also has ambitions of making it to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with Slovakia, and given his recent performances, those dreams might soon come true.

The bustling midfielder impressed at the Al Ain International Juniors Championship last week where he was voted the player of the tournament as City regained the title they had won in 2010. They remained unbeaten throughout the tournament, defeating Al Ain, Valencia, Inter Milan and the UAE Under 17 team.

Mark Allen, the manager of the City junior team, was delighted with their triumph. They had brought, in his words, "quite a strong group" to Al Ain, which included several other EDS players such as George Evans, Courtney Meppen-Walter and Jordi Hiwula. The group also had six players from the club's Under 16 squad.

Allen described their success as a "fantastic advert for the club's development programme", but refused to single out any individuals for praise.

"I always shy away from that because I don't like putting pressure on the boys," he said. "But you can see for yourself, some good players there.

"It [the Al Ain tournament] is very good for the boys to learn because we hope one day, some of these might play in Qatar in the 2022 World Cup. So they will have to get used to the climate."

Before that, though, Allen is hoping many of his youngsters will graduate to the club's first team. City's youth system is one of the most respected in England, having produced 35 professional players since 1998, which is the most by any English Premier League club. Fourteen of these players are still at the club.

The club have also played a pioneering role in the formation of the new NextGen series, which is a continental championship for young players and styled on the Champions League.

Since the 2008 takeover by the Abu Dhabi United Group Investment and Development Limited, there has been an even greater emphasis on developing more talent through the youth system, much in the manner of the Spanish giants Barcelona, who can field a first XI consisting purely of players who have come through their youth system.

"I think the owners have been very clear that moving forward, they want us to produce from the academy, and that's been very clear," Allen said. "We have been well supported by the owners who have been absolutely superb.

"At the academy, it takes much longer because you have to invest sometimes five or even seven years. But we are starting to see some boys coming through now with the programme and philosophy. So we have fingers crossed that we will develop some good players."

By all reckoning, Rusnak is one of those players destined to succeed. And Abu Dhabi retains a special place in his heart.

"I was in Abu Dhabi filming [an advertisement for the Manchester City Academy] and it was an amazing experience, probably something I won't do ever again, like filming in a desert, going through camels, through hotels and fountains," he said. "It was just amazing."

The Al Ain championship will also have a special mention in the memoirs of Rusnak and all the other talented youngsters from the academies of Valencia and Inter.

"The hospitality has been first class," Allen said. "Everyone has worked very hard, it's well organised, everything has been perfect for us in terms of if we wanted to train. So many, many congratulations to Al Ain for a superb organisation of the tournament.

"Every year we come, it gets better and better. It is an easy one to say yes to come."

The coaches of Valencia and Inter shared those sentiments.

"The trip has been of great benefit to the squad, getting them used to tournament play and different conditions," said Sergio Zanetti, the Inter Academy's Under 18 coach. "We played against international teams like Man City, Valencia and Al Ain. It will help the boys to grow up as players."

"We came here with a younger squad than Man City and Inter," said Nicholas George, the Valencia coach. "So we are really happy to finish second and we are already looking forward to returning here next year if we are invited."

For the local players, the tournament offered a chance to test their skills against some of the best in Europe and Yousuf Ahmed, the Al Ain striker, impressed Allen.

"I think is a very good player, very clever," Allen said.

Ahmed's teammate, Sultan Mohammed, was voted the best goalkeeper of the tournament, while the UAE Under 17 striker Khalfan Mubarak was the top scorer with five goals in four games.

"We are playing against such good teams like Manchester City, Valencia and Inter Milan and Al Ain," said Majid Humaid Al Mussayebi, the assistant coach of the UAE Under 17 team. "Our players are young and it is really good for them to be playing against players and teams of this level.

"This tournament is really good for the future of these players and the future of UAE football."

arizvi@thenational.ae

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