Hostile interpretations depict them as obtrusive and inherently privileged blemishes on the diverse landscape of senior domestic competition. Pragmatic, and broadly optimistic, reactions view their presence as a pivotal intervention in a regressive and detrimental league structure.
The former opt to form their argument on the conservative foundation of financial concern, atmospheric sacrifices and the apparent gross misuse of league, or in some cases cup, berths in order to fulfil the ultimate ambitions of well-established institutions, thus hindering the ability of local teams to progress through the ranks; the latter remonstrate with the ammunition of previous practical implications – in the most evident examples, the World Cup’s prior two victors, admittedly to diverging extents – and the increasingly inhibiting environment posed to local youth products, as high-cost imports dominate many highly developed league economies.
As per my article on the EFL Trophy and the presence of under-23 academies within its evidently uninspired realms over a year ago now, my opinion has remained resolute in the favour of their instilment within British footballing culture, however idealistic and improbable the resonance of such rhetoric presently appears in English environs; even averse, to date, to the implementation of in-match VAR systems. The arguments are well-rehearsed and economically exhausted, even in the regions of the policy’s broader embracement, and require little further surmising, either in the sensationalised mass media market or concentrated diatribe of independent opinion sources – objective or otherwise. Regardless of these comprehensions of what is often viewed as a direct decree of national association policy, the stagnating value of such subordinate, youth-focused, entities in Spain, Germany and the United States – both in respects of performance and development output – poses an alarming fixation to national governments; how can their fundamental ethical status be reenergised and harnessed for the benefit of all stages of the federal game, from club, to league, to national team?
As international representatives traverse the continent, and, in some cases, circumnavigate a considerable expanse of the globe, and domestic coaches fixate their attention on ensuring the retention of fitness amongst those left behind prior to financially lucrative upcoming matches, the circumstance for reserve sides, and outfits supplementary to globally-renowned professional senior sides, is unfortunate. Diminished even in the event of their superiors’ absence, the eventual ambition of encompassing the roles of notable alumni Andrés Iniesta, Xavi, Gerard Piqué, Víctor Valdés, Carles Puyol, Cesc Fàbregas, Dani Carvajal and Nacho Fernández provides the requisite motivational sustenance to persist through this trial of mental, in addition to physiological, aptitude. Comprising a diaspora as diverse in geography as 15 of all 17 regional provinces in the Spanish state alone, in the form of 60 individual male ‘reserve’ entities, the ‘B’ side trend requires no further elaboration or exploration in the Western Mediterranean. Nor is Germany’s fervour for a structurally progressive youth outfit in question, as 19 complementary sides compete in the professional ranks of the 3. Liga (Werder Bremen II) or the various fourth-tier Regionalliga (featuring constituents as diverse as Hamburg, Berlin, Dortmund, Köln, Mainz, Nürnberg, Munich and Hoffenheim) to reasonable degrees of current achievement. Yet these trends defer to preceding statistics. Three ‘B’ clubs – Xerez Club Deportivo B, Unión Deportiva Salamanca B and Lorca Deportiva Club de Fútbol B – have each been liquidated in the previous eight years, either due to the dissolution, or relegation from professional national ranks, of senior entities, while the repercussion in Deutschland of a 2013-14 Deutsche Fußball Liga (DFB) relaxation of reserve team regulations, enabling Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga sides not to persevere with subordinates by constitution, led to the severing of under-23 ties by 12 sides; among them the Bundesliga’s Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer 04 Leverkusen, and familiar 2. Bundesliga faces including Dynamo Dresden, FC Union Berlin and VfL Bochum. Fundamentally, this should act a pressing constitutional concern for both associations – the Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF), and DFB – as it perhaps signifies the forbearer to the ambition’s practical demise, especially in nations for whom the wealth available, for a select elite, from continental competition and lucrative sponsorships enables a mass mobilisation of funds into internal or external imports, while the disparity of wealth gapes ever wider with lower regions of competition.
Profitability is an obvious arising concern, both for clubs and leagues. Considering the status of such feeder clubs as subordinates, devoid of the individual or localised heritage, and thus the inherent fan base, of opposing senior establishments, the inevitable lack of financial profit margin available when both hosting league matches and travelling, alongside an insignificant few supporters, appears a constitutional flaw to their foundation. Impracticality, then, could be an evident, but blunt, derision of their engineering. The gradual disillusionment of officials within the fertile realms of the policy’s instillation, thus compiling fans’ existing frustrations, is surely a damning indictment of its accomplishment for club progress, regardless of the benefits for national team exploits, considering the vast majority of players’ heritage at a dominant few clubs.
Yet supressing the production of home-grown alumni is fast becoming an equal trepidation for governing bodies. If quantifying coaching production as a season’s tutelage, Real Madrid currently employ just eight academy graduates – well-established figures including Dani Carvajal, Nacho, Kiko Casilla and Lucas Vázquez, and the as-yet unheralded Borja Mayoral, Marcos Llorente, Luca Zidane and Achraf Hakimi – even in Zinedine Zidane’s youth-professing tenure, while the famed La Masia youth philosophy of FC Barcelona boasts one fewer exponent; Gerard Piqué, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Rafinha, Gerard Deulofeu and Sergi Roberto the present representatives of Johan Cruyff’s originally espoused values. Correspondingly, Bayern Munich retain a mere duo of senior representatives – Thomas Müller and Mats Hummels – from prior academies, although do resolve to fulfil squad requirements with five teenagers, including Mario Götze’s brother Felix, as-yet unacquainted with senior game time, while Borussia Dortmund reel off seven names, including Nuri Şahin, the aforementioned Götze, Marco Reus, Erik Durm, Jacob Bruun Larsen, Junior Flores and Marcel Schmelzer, from the line of production from what is often respected as Germany’s most loyally-supported reserve side. David Wagner and Daniel Farke, the two previous Dortmund II coaches, represent two of Germany’s most proficient recent managerial exports, and have played pivotal roles in the development of a number of future DFB players in international competition, truly defining the coherent vision and contingency of the German symbiotic domestic and international structure. Yet this is being threatened by the unfulfilling relationship a diverse diaspora of other club officials hold, and resent the policy for.
In contradiction to my opening statement, then, every inspection of senior-affiliated reserves may appear to offer tangible resonance over their induction in alternative landscapes, whether in the conceited English microcosm or those otherwise more detached. Inherent questions are posed as to why stagnation has occurred – courtesy of the policy’s redundancy, inclement environments for implementation, or an extent of both – and these forms of enquiry expose a potential fall from grace, certainly in the preceding context of Zinedine Zidane, Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique’s managerial influence. Easily comparable with the Butler model – that taught to GCSE Geography students in the measurement of tourism profitability – these subsidiary sides have direct influence on whether rejuvenation or ruin looms ahead.
What remains the fundamental issue for their existence, in objective terms, is whether they are so institutionalised that, when posed with challenges to their existence, their perennial resort is to the incestuous ties of their heritage, as opposed to a liberal view of future external influence. Can they break with tradition in the nigh-on unprecedented circumstance of failure, or, in keeping with recent trends elsewhere, adapt by replicating the practices, both financially and performance-wise, of their upwardly mobile contemporaries? Evidently, alternating accepted systemic norms at such a stage of development appears a quizzical move, but if ingrained and interwoven in the culture of their nation’s lower stages of professional football, is this an option they should be prepared to take as preferably devolved, if not entirely independent, entities? Aside from financial concerns, should greater influence be transferred from specialists espousing the value of these unique and youth-professing clubs? Such are the systemic concerns of the policy’s execution, that these drastic measures are highly relevant, with the potential response to be enacted as soon as practically possible to release the overriding malaise in these ranks.
What this would realistically entail, however, is another matter. Reframing the control of coaching vision, first-team progress and the dictation of transfer policy, as opposed to the diktat of senior officials; the potential for ‘B’, and even ‘C’ sides as Sevilla, Villarreal and Real Sociedad boast, far exceeds their present constraints. Rather than acting merely as platforms for hopeful elevation – both in managerial and playing respects – would a further degree of autonomy be garnered by the means of sterner professionalism, and consideration of short-term pragmatism, as opposed to utilising an idealised future image as their employees’ sole means of motivation? This wouldn’t require a complete severing of ties – after all, their entire intention is to provide the substance of senior squads in La Liga, the Bundesliga and potentially international echelons – yet forging a clear identity from the manacles, that while encouraging their prosperity, do little to enable their existential progress, is becoming a pressing concern for their relevant survival.
Such concern is not undue. Following Zidane’s premature promotion to senior responsibilities, Real Madrid Castilla presently find themselves mired in the Segunda División B –Spain’s third tier, where 17 of 80 sides across four groups are subsidiary outfits – whereas the Segunda División’s only reserve influence is maintained by Barcelona B and Sevilla Atlético. Complementing aforementioned German regression, this fact, the dire straits of American reserve ‘soccer’ – albeit in its infancy – with all four Western Conference USL (United Soccer League, the division below the MLS) ‘II’ sides occupying positions 12-15 (of a total of 15) and Toronto FC II 15th in the Eastern Conference, and the status of only seven Norwegian Premier Division’s reserve sides in the third tier, or Second Division, assert little other than a lack of aspiration, or attainment. Yet context is required. No reserve side in Norwegian football can, by constitution, play higher than the Second Division, and only six group victories – Brann, group 4 1991, Rosenborg, group 5 ’91 and ’96, and group 7 ’98, Lillestrøm, group 1 ’92 and Viking, group 3 ‘05 – have occurred in the history of the league, while in America no reserve side can play above the USL, with the ideal example demonstrated by New York Red Bulls II just last season, when returning as division victors, only to readjust this season to a position as the only ‘II’ side not to be at the foot of their conference – 7th in the East.
Tradition reverts in American confines, however. Bethlehem Steel FC, Swope Park Rangers and Real Monarchs exist as fellow MLS-owned satellite clubs, representing Philadelphia Union, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake’s respective interests, while the vast majority – 22 of the USL’s total 30 institutions – are physically affiliated, to some degree, with MLS elders. These links are largely the repercussion of relegation, or financial insolvencies, within original feeder clubs – including Wilmington Hammerheads, Arizona United, Harrisburg City Islanders and FC Montreal – and represent transfer links to the extent of a rough average of four potentially prodigious products every season, very few of whom amount to first-team MLS elevation. The status of overt, reasonably long-established ‘II’ sides – Seattle Sounders, Toronto, New York Red Bulls, LA Galaxy, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps – and Orlando City B presents little of the idealistic vision of a platform for home-grown players beyond age-group football, as the disconnect between these institutions and the local vicinity’s hopefully bountiful talents, without mentioning the lack of evident potential progress, is tangible. A contextually paltry 59.85%, or 79 of 132, players presently registered at these clubs are merely from the nation of their employers’ distinction, and though a significant degree of the remaining proportion may be consumed by American and Canadian players criss-crossing the border, each side had a repatriated non-North American; of note, the Whitecaps three New Zealanders, the Sounders two Cameroonians, the Timbers a Somalian and Sierra Leonean, Galaxy another two Cameroonians, Orlando (coached by Tony Pulis’ son, Anthony) two Brazilians and three Englishmen, and the Red Bulls a Swiss and Frenchman. The ramifications of this flouting go beyond even the extensive capital resources available to Catalan, Madrilenian and Sevillian institutions, with Barcelona B, Madrid Castilla, Atlético Madrid B and Sevilla Atlético presently posting an overseas-derived technicality of 21 of 100 youngsters on their catalogues, while Luca Zidane only qualifies as French in this study courtesy of his father’s international exploits.
Thus, alternative interpretations of the policy have, quite evidently, emerged in the global reserve infiltration of senior ranks. Derivation from an undefined original vision is perhaps the inevitable consequence of alternating socio-economic and geopolitical circumstance; the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Portugal each enable reserve sides in their professional divisions, with outlets performing to accomplished standards in the 2000’s Czech third tiers - Česká and Moravskoslezská fotbalová liga’s – and modest, broadly mid-table achievement in both post-dissolution Slovak, and Portuguese, second stages; the 2. Liga and LigaPro. Despite prior title-winning accomplishments at that level, again regulation renders these outfits ineligible from elite-tier competition. For all of the potential benefits of senior competition to these young players, and the constant espousal of contingency – or forging of cohesive team units – as an advantageous aspect of coaching tutelage, can it ever be correct to bar these sides from elite level competition? Can it, in fact, be detrimental to their development to suffer such disenchantments, and blatant absences of dutiful reward for their seasons’ physical and mental sacrifices, after they have strived so hard as a unit to deliver silverware? The accusation certainly could be footed at internationally underperforming associations, though they may retort with a statement elaborating on the potential embarrassment the promotion of a reserve side may signal to external observers, and the subsequent monopoly of a particular side in domestic influence, as detrimental to standards of competition. If blessed with talented and progressive youth establishments, however, why suppress them; why dampen their spirits; why deny them their merited recompense? If they have proven themselves superior to the competition of alternative senior outfits around them, that has to be remarked as a sufficient indictment of the quality of your domestic establishment, in which case your ambitions of Champions League or international influence are significantly scarce.
Ensuring the deliverance of such cultural reform, however, would require immense resolve to subdue the will of aggrieved and opposing senior clubs – perhaps only an ability empowered by cultural transition. Convince subjects of the fundamental resonance of youth-fixated reserve teams on senior competition, and to an extent only capacitated by their ambition, and the vacuum may appear for a pivotal role in progressive international application. These are not merely the boarding schools and playgrounds of future pampered idols, but a broad-church in each circumstance of players that, if applying to recent trends, will broadly resort to irrelevant lower depths of professionalism, and could in rare examples progress to continentally, and globally-achieving accomplishment. Fail to do so, and what hope can remain for the rejuvenation of domestic, or national governing body, structures?
Feeder, or farm, teams have long been a feature of elite level competition, and are practically inherent of the brutal capitalism of the football industry; prising the apparent cream of talent away from financially modest institutions and thrusting them into a single attempt at surviving the perils of fame. As clinical scouting procedures have tightened, wages have developed exponentially and transfer fees have similarly bloated out of all rational extortion, so have the performance levels expected from recommended signatures. Autonomy is the divisive feature of all reserve satellite clubs, and its scopes are conclusive.
Arguably, however, the existing framework of examples is insufficient while analysing the potential in these arrangements. Experimentation within the premise is rare, and, when relating to ultimate intentions of player development, the candour of sides who operate in such a manner is commendable, but the trajectory must change. No longer should they be deemed the novelties of their nation’s league system; they require much greater respect if they are to realise their potential.
Perhaps bowing to broader trends is the inevitable repercussion of an institutionalised reputation, and perhaps B teams will never grasp the autonomy they could demand. Prodigies will be identified and elevated swiftly, and ‘late bloomers’ may be left to stagnate with disillusion. Patience is a virtue seldom heeded in modern footballing circles, and is directly applicable to these institutions, as opposed to their seniors, considering the differing circumstances that may apply to particular youths. In an age as equally revolved around the psychological aspects of any player’s career, as the physiological, you would suspect that this consideration would become a bastion of all reserve establishments’ philosophy. Germany’s system shares the most obvious similarities with this concept currently, and arguably presents the finest democratic balance of opponents’ concerns – clamping down on the use of over-23s, such as recuperating first-teamers, in 2014 – and empathy to withstand criticism and guard the very presence of the sides, certainly amidst serious controversy. As for playing success, meanwhile, there has been little since the decree.
An all-encompassing examination of an existence often mired in regulation, constitutional duty and external resentment, altogether, is challenging to apply to the vast spectrum of interpretations demonstrated of the modern ‘B’ side; Spain, Germany, Norway, the former Czechoslovakia, Portugal and the USA posing a comprehensive variance in geopolitical and cultural circumstance. Grappling with the concept, resultantly, remains an ideological conflict of interest, and only in lower tiers of lower historical quality does the policy evidently appear to deliver reward. As economic empowerment filters down to these subordinate stages of multinational professionalism, the strain on La Liga, Bundesliga, Eliteserien, Czech First League, Slovak Super Liga, Primeira Liga and MLS outfits – depending on the degree of devolution they profess – increases, largely, and ironically, as a result of their own monopoly on domestic capital. Thus, their value of local youth is being tested in an era equally as challenging for sustained success on national and continental senior stages. Perhaps while engineering the direction of talented provincial youngsters, it is only reasonable to expect fluctuations in season-by-season, and even decade-defining, quality; especially when prising the talismanic forerunners of such formative teams away from their environments of prior comfort. Oscillating region-specific socio-economic circumstances may hinder the realisation of particular generational ambitions, and that is something that has to be begrudged. Whether current malaise is merely a regrettable phase of indiscretion, however, remains open to potentially merciless judgement, and I sincerely doubt operations can continue in profitability if managed with the present resonance of apathy.
In a landscape where a Sevilla Atlético, and former Barcelona B, goalkeeper in Fabrice Ondoa can assume a defined role as Cameroon’s first-choice goalkeeper, and run out victorious in an African Cup of Nations campaign, while Jean Marie Dongou – Barcelona B’s long-touted former striker, and fellow Cameroonian – can face a demise to the extent of a current role at the Segunda División’s mid-table Gimnàstic de Tarragona, and with no national team caps at the age of 22, few pre-emptive assumptions are consistent. The coaching process at this level is applicable, truly, only to a certain psychological breed of player, and has witnessed many regrettable prior examples of career stagnation. Divisive, they will remain, yet if willing to compromise and adapt, when run by all-encompassing dictatorial entities, B sides may be able to alleviate the festering inconsistencies of their existence. Victims of their subordination, they shouldn’t have to be. Yet nor do they have to adopt the artificial exterior of American contemporaries, resorting to vague attempts of sincerity to convince susceptible publics of their independent provincial loyalties. The modern B team is not merely a farm, or production line, and does not serve one entity – its seniors. It is not a vessel for exploitation, and should not be isolated in the event of fortune changes, or regulation manipulations. Their relationship should be reciprocal, and not solely in respects of the financial support exchanged for a steady flow of prodigies senior sides currently expect; respect of autonomy should be regarded as systemic. Though this is a callous generalisation of the policy’s implementation, the extremity of its demise demands addressing, and the apathy for these reserves’ fortunes is systemic, largely both in the regions of their existence and externally, in territories potentially untouched by the policy. Ultimately, whether rational resolution is enacted, or not, will prove the true testament to the value of these establishments, bearing the face of acutely financially-conscious senior institutions and dictating the policy’s future tenability in alternative environs. Let the games begin.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!