Mismo club, nueva era. Same club, a new era. It was the title of an inspiring video that top-flight Spanish football club Valencia Club de Fútbol released just before its 100th anniversary. The message: the prolific youth academy, which has delivered world-class talents as Gaizka Mendieta, David Silva, Jordi Alba, Ferran Torres, will be at the club’s core moving forward. By investing in a strong Acadèmia, the centurion wants to give the club a bright future. “The key objective is to have at least half of our first team made up of our academy boys.”
Sean Bai is the man who needs to guide Valencia CF into this new era. The Singaporean has, since January 2019, been in charge of the youth program of the club. Some eyebrows were raised upon his appointment because of his unconventional career path. After seven years of being a diplomat for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, he was asked to join Valencia—first as Director of the President´s Office (2018), later as Academy Director.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of the game since I was young. I know that’s completely different from being part of the football project yourself, but I work with a great team of football professionals. I work closely with them. I exchange views and knowledge with them and vice versa”, explains Bai. “In most companies, the director isn’t necessarily the best in a specific technical field. He needs to surround himself with the best professionals of different expertise to find the best way forward.”
‘We educate people, we train footballers’
The way forward is quite clear: creating a solid and sustainable academy where talented boys and girls can maximise their potential. And not only as a player, as stated in the football philosophy of the Valencia CF Academy: we educate people, we train footballers.” We want the players that come through our academy to make a mark on society, even if they don’t make it to the first team or even to a professional level”, tells Bai.
“We need to grow them as a person: with their feet and their head”, the Academy Director continues. “So we reserved a massive budget for putting them in the best private school of Valencia. We also encourage them to pick up courses, keep studying and think further than their football career. For those who make it, a professional career mostly lasts 15 years, and that’s if they’re lucky to complete it without injuries. We just want to equip all our academy players with the necessary life skills, whether they make it or not.”
Bai and his team work in close alignment with the club’s philosophy but added a more data and science orientated approach to the mix: “At the moment we have several data platforms and tools to work within our youth program: for medical, scouting and training purposes. We collect all our player’s data, analyse it and work upon that. In time we even want to have our own high-performance data centre with specialised spaces in which players can train certain skills.”
Forward through innovation
In general, Valencia is a club that likes to be innovative in its industry. Bai compares youth development with a mobile phone: “You need to keep updating it frequently because otherwise development will stop. We want to give our talents the most updated, most advanced and most innovative ideas to help them reach their highest potential.”
“Last year, we initiated the project Academy 360, in which we bring in new concepts from outside football into our curriculum. So we introduced, for example, some judo courses, so that players learn how to break their fall properly”, Bai continues. “We’re constantly looking for new ideas and new partners to bring in best practices, but also new perspectives and opinions. That’s also why we’re partnering with JOGO because it’s an interesting product and can be useful for us.”
‘Four ingredients for the perfect youth program’
The general objective of the Valencia CF Academy is to get as many talents into the first team. According to Bai, just 5% of all academy players worldwide make it to a professional level. To maximise this probability rate, Bai and his team try to optimise the youth program with the help of four indispensable ingredients: talent identification, excellent facilities, people management and a more individual approach.
“When I first started at the Academy, I was told that there are two essential ingredients to a world-class youth program: identifying the best players and having the best facilities”, Bai explains. “But that’s not enough. Having the best scouting and facilities gives you undoubtedly an advantage, but you also need to invest in your people—the whole environment around a player. The last ingredient is a more people-orientated approach to the project. In youth development, we tend to compare academies with factories that deliver products for the first team, but we’re talking about people here.”
The talent identification process of Valencia CF is mainly focused on finding home-grown talent. More specific: the best talents in the vast area of the Valencian Community. Quality over quantity is the mantra for Los Che. The club is working together with over 35 partner clubs and has scouts moving around the Comunidad Valencia regularly. These scouts are not only looking at the qualities of a player but also his personality. “There is not a lot of data on such a young age, but we do trials, watch them live and have them properly scouted.”
“In our scouting, we focus heavily on talented players from our own, Valencia region. Of course, we also search in the rest of Spain and worldwide, but our region is already such a big pool to fish from”, states Bai. “So our academy consists approximately 75% out of Valencianos. That not only makes up for a strong local identity but also a very familiar ambience. Players from outside the region are directly affected by the love these local boys feel for the club.”
Valencia CF’s talents are daily found at the renewed sports complex of the club: Ciudad Deportiva del Valencia. “The facilities around the players need to be good for them to be able to reach their true potential. When I first came here, we didn’t even have a gym within the academy, so we built and incorporated a brand-new gym two years ago. It was shocking that there wasn’t one in the first place because, as a player, you also need to develop yourself physically. But culturally, there was never a big emphasis for children going through physical sessions.”
“Nowadays, we see a culture change: the coaches, players as well as parents see that a physical session is more than building muscles, it’s also injury prevention”, Bai continues. “We also adopted a more data-centric approach in the physical preparation of our talents. We have all the equipment to look closely into all the movements they make, and several departments, such as our medical team, can analyse these data and act accordingly.”
Compared to the big football giants, Valencia CF might not have one of the fanciest sports complexes, but certainly one of the cosiest ones. “Everyone that visits our academy tells me how social the climate is. Everyone knows each other, and that gives a very homely sense. I often compare us with a big family, and I think that’s an important, and sometimes even overlooked, element in player development. You need to be in a comfortable and conducive place to excel.”
The environment of a player
“At Valencia CF, we not only look at the hardware, which are the facilities, but also the software: the whole environment around a player”, Bai continues. “You need to have a good development plan in place for your talents and also your academy staff and the parents. The players are at the core of our youth program, but all the different circles around a player are just as important for their development.”
Workshops, meetings and coffee sessions are organised for all the different departments within the academy to learn from each other, exchange opinions, but also stay in line with the general methodology. “And for the parents, we do presentations on equipment, home exercises, nutrition and several other topics”, Bai adds. “We need to have a steady relationship with the family of our talents. Many youngsters don’t have the discipline and awareness of all these details they need to pay attention to. You need to make sacrifices to make the cut and become a professional footballer, so it’s easier if everyone is on the same page. We can tell a player not to eat fast food, but if his parents let him eat as much as possible, our nutrition department will not be amused, and he will have a problem. We’re really in this all together.”
To empower academy players to reach their fullest potential, Valencia CF adopted in the last two years a more people-orientated approach into their youth program. The club invested a lot in individual talent management, including special, personalised training and health programs. “We’re trying to go in deeper and customise one’s development on a more individual level”, explains Bai. “So if we notice in our data analysis that someone needs to improve in a certain field we give him an individual program: to do for example some extra hours on the pitch or the gym, but also follow a diet from our nutritionists if any.”
The Academy Director stresses that everything the club does is with an eye on the future: “The most important for us is to look at the bigger picture: how one progresses over time. Will one be ready for the next age group and for what’s coming? Our development department keeps a close eye on that and acts accordingly. In the end, it’s all about the player: the hours he wants to put in and the sacrifices he is willing to make to achieve his dream. And we need to do our best to help players achieve this top level of motivation and commitment. Once we have all these factors in place, we are in a good position to achieve something beautiful.”
With the help of an innovative approach towards the ‘four ingredients of a successful youth program’, Bai has laid a great foundation at Valencia CF Academy for the future to come. “We have been recognised by CIES Football Observatory amongst the top 5 most productive academies in Europe for two consecutive years (2019-2020). Our Academy was nominated for several youth development awards, including ECA and World Football Summit. We have consistently had academy players moving up to our first team or other professional clubs. The short to medium-term results have been encouraging, but we do not forget that our project is for the long term. We are on a promising trajectory, and we need to keep growing, improving and climbing up.”