ROME (Reuters) - Italy's biggest clubs are playing catch-up with the rest of Europe as they look to save money by developing their own young talent but the move is hurting some of the other Serie A outfits who boast successful academies.
Until very recently, the likes of Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan would reinforce their squads by bringing in big names ready to compete at the highest level but the difficult economic climate is forcing them to focus their resources in-house.
"The current economic situation combined with new UEFA (financial fair play) regulations has forced Europe's big clubs to invest heavily in youth development," Mauro Bianchessi, AC Milan's head of youth scouting, told Reuters.
According to the CIES (International Centre for Sports Studies) Football Observatory's 2013 Demographic Study, Italy has the lowest percentage of players who spent three years at the club they are at now between the ages of 15 and 21.
The figure for Italy is 7.8 percent, which falls well below the average for the other four top European leagues (England, Spain, Germany and France) of 17.2 percent.
AS Roma's Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi are among the rare examples of players who have stayed at the clubs whose academies they came through but there could soon be more if the big clubs continue their drive towards homegrown talent.
This bigger focus by Italy's top clubs on youth development though is, according to Bianchessi, having a negative effect on smaller clubs like Atalanta, who traditionally have had a strong academy and who regularly bring players into their first team.
"I worked at Atalanta for 15 years, and have been at Milan since 2006. Back then there was a different economic situation and different aims for the first teams," Bianchessi said.
"To win the league or Champions League players were needed who were ready, and therefore not young unless they were phenomenal.
"A club like Atalanta, which didn't have these aims, had the opportunity to develop players, put them in the first team and then sell them. And with that money they managed to keep the club going."
Atalanta are based in Bergamo in Lombardy, on the doorstep of Milan and Inter, but nonetheless consistently produce footballers capable of playing in the top division.
They have eight academy products in their first team squad, and according to the CIES study are Italy's number one club for youth development and eighth in the world.
"Smaller clubs like Atalanta are in great difficulty now, as we are a very strong local competitor, and a much bigger club. Over the last few years Inter, Milan and Juventus have been investing heavily in their youth systems," Bianchessi said.
The Italian footballers' union AIC has been conducting its own study into the future facing Italy's young players, and early figures for the 2009-10 season suggest there is a serious problem with youth development.
Of the 1215 players playing in Serie A and B clubs' Primavera sides (oldest youth team age group, aged 15 to 20) that season, only 5 percent now play in Serie A and 11 percent in Serie B.
What will be even more shocking to some is that 58 percent do not play professional football at all in Italy.
The numbers do not specify those who have moved abroad or are still in their youth set-ups but 22 percent of all Primavera players from that season who are today registered as professional footballers are without a team to play for.
Of those who do play professionally in Italy, 58 percent are either on loan to or part-owned by other clubs, 67 percent of them to clubs in the Lega Pro First and Second Divisions (third and fourth tier).
According to the AIC, this is because Lega Pro clubs receive financial support from the Italian Football Federation for each player under the age of 22 they field. First Division clubs must field at least two and Second Division clubs three.
The AIC report says many clubs at this level exploit this rule "not to invest in promising young players, but only and exclusively for economic reasons".
It adds that 54 percent of the footballers playing at Primavera level in 2009/2010 have now left that set-up for good. Of those, 73 percent no longer play professional soccer, and only 9 percent play in Serie A or B.
"The (indirect and not wanted) effect of this rule ... is to encourage a 'throwaway' use of players under the age of 22," the report says.
"Boys that, in a given year, enable teams to obtain federal contributions, the following year are forced to stop playing professionally, not because they are no longer good enough but because they are no longer under 22." (Editing by Sonia Oxley)
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