Early exposure to European competition will aid players' development
Uefa’s youth movement a worthwhile project for the future
As the first Atlantic storm of the winter battered the Basque city of San Sebastian, 800 hardy souls watched a game of junior football between Real Sociedad and Manchester United. It was the first of two such games in a day.
A new initiative this season, the Uefa youth league matches the Under 19 sides of the Uefa Champions League teams a few hours before their senior sides meet. It works.
Young players receive the experience of travel with the first team, of getting used to killing time in foreign hotels.
They play against unfamiliar opponents in unfamiliar stadiums, against unorthodox styles of play. The first-team coaches have the opportunity to see their young players.
Real beat a United coached by the former players Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes in Manchester, and United returned the honour in San Sebastian, though results are secondary to player development.
The fans hope to spot future stars. The conditions hardly helped, but it was a struggle to identify future gems in the Basque country.
Barcelona see the league as part of their player development, but they recently decided to stop their youth players flying with the first team, incurring the cost of an extra plane as a consequence of the move.
They felt those young players were feeling they had already made the big time by travelling with stars. That is a concern, but the benefits of the youth league far outweigh its problems.