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Tom Robinson looks at one of the less feted academies in world football, that of Colombian giants Deportivo Cali.
It may sound like a truism but South American football usually finds itself adopting a short term mentality. With many clubs steeped in debt, the fragile state of their finances means that squads are dismantled after any success and young stars are whisked away at an increasingly early age. The gulf between South America teams and Europe is bigger than ever and shows no sign of reducing any time soon.
Given these economic realities, there is therefore a necessity for clubs to produce home-grown talent and in Colombia no-one is currently developing youth better than Deportivo Cali.
One of the country’s biggest and most successful teams, Cali have won nine league titles, the majority of which came during a golden era between the mid-sixties and mid-seventies, and have produced some of Colombia’s finest players. The likes of Jairo Arboleda, Mario Yepes and Oscar Cordoba took their formative steps with Cali, while a young Carlos Valderrama also made his name with Los Verdiblancos at the start of his career.
A look at the current national team shows numerous Cali graduates too. First choice centre backs Cristian Zapata and Jeison Murillo both came through the Cali youth system, as did midfielders Abel Aguilar and young forward Luis Muriel. Other success stories from the Azucacero academy include Fredy Montero, Gustavo Cuellar and Fabian Castillo, all of whom have also been capped at senior level.
So what makes Deportivo Cali’s youth set up such a success? Firstly, the sheer scope and reach in the local community ensures Cali’s comprehensive operation attracts and nurtures numerous young hopefuls. The academy, headed up by director Hernando Arias, comprises of eight age groups with around 200 players on their books and 50 coaches on the payroll. Their pyramid stretches out to include satellite clubs in the neighbourhoods of El Guabal, Andres Sanin, Los Alamos and Villa Rica, allowing them to keep tabs on around 3,000 prospects, according to Arias. Further programmes in Guachene, Buenaventura and Puerto Tejada extend their influence across the Valle del Cauca region.
Equally key is their vast scouting network which casts its net far and wide, scouring the country in search of talent. Renowned scout Agustin Garizabalo covers the Caribbean coast for Cali and has unearthed the likes of Muriel, Aguilar and Juan Cuadrado. For Garizabalo and the other Cali scouts, it’s as much about the mental attributes as well as the physical. On top of the mandatory technical skillset, potential recruits are expected to possess game intelligence, hunger and a strong work ethic.
Once back at the Cali academy, new players are housed in the club’s lodging, which comes complete with coaches, cooks, a social worker and a psychologist. The environment is designed to help youngsters, some living far from home, settle and adapt to their new surroundings, while also providing a healthy balanced diet, a place to study and general supervision. After six months, players staying on typically move into foster homes with families who provide a further support network. These comprehensive facilities reflect the holistic approach taken by Cali and demonstrate their success at nurturing the person as well as the player.
Though Cali have exported a steady flow of talent over the last decade, results on the pitch have been less impressive. However, over the last couple of years a particularly exciting new generation has emerged and with it domestic silverware has arrived too.
Once again lacking the funds to bring in any big names, returning manager Fernando ‘Pecoso’ Castro was forced into drawing upon the pool of talent from the academy ahead of the 2015 Apertura. Comprising almost exclusively of home-grown players the unfancied Cali secured their ninth title – their first in ten years – with a 2-1 aggregate win over Medellin, having already dispatched Atletico Nacional and Millonarios en route to the final.
Unsurprisingly their three standout players all came from the academy. Striker Harold Preciado, fresh from a prolific loan spell for Jaguares de Cordoba in the second division, was the top scorer in his first top flight season with 13 in 26 games. Still only 21, Preciado has continued his form in the second half of the year with another 12 goals and is gaining attention from a number of clubs in Europe.
Already on his way to the Old Continent, Rafael Santos Borre was another star turn for la Tromba Verde. A clever, skilful and mobile forward, Santos Borre chipped in with eight goals and also impressed for Colombia U20s, earning himself a move to Atletico Madrid for the princely sum of 5.5mil. The 20-year-old Barranquilla native is back on loan with Cali until the summer with the prospect of a Libertadores campaign waiting in the new year.
The oldest of the trio at 22, Andres Felipe Roa’s pace and trickery was often the creative spark in Cali’s title win. After impressing during loan spells at Uniautonoma and Union Magdalena, Roa seized his opportunity under Castro and weighed in with five goals from midfield, culminating in a national team debut against Peru.
That said, throughout the squad there were impressive young performers wherever you looked. Marauding full back Helibelton Palacios, 22, was a constant outlet on the right and, like Roa, recently earned a maiden call to the Colombia national team. The hulking presence of German Mera, a veritable veteran at 25, has been the rock of the defence for some time now and Juan Sebastian Quintero looks to be a very exciting centre back who also shone for the Cafateros U20s. Furthermore, young full backs Jeison Angulo and Luis Orejuela are both U20 internationals, while Jhon Lucumi turned out for the U17 national team and made several league appearances too.
Perhaps the revelation of the year came in Kevin Balanta. The 18-year-old defensive midfielder filled in for the experienced Juan Guaza and brought energy, tenacity and bite to the team. Jose Pekerman is a fan and duly rewarded him with a first cap. Yerson Candelo, orchestrator of the midfield, made a significant contribution to the title-winning side but has now left for pastures new, moving to Mexican outfit Queretaro for around $3mil. And in Nicolas Benedetti, 18, and Carlos Neneco Renteria, 20, there are still plenty more midfield talents waiting in the wings.
While the lion’s share of the goals were scored by Preciado and Santos Borre, 22-year-old Miguel Murillo made a significant contribution, hiting the back of the net eight times in the Apertura, and is generating interest from clubs in Mexico. 18-year-old Mateo Casierra has emerged as another promising striker in the second half of the year and expectations are high for Pablo Sabbag and Alveiro Sanchez, the latter cruelly ruled out for most of the year through injury. The Cali conveyor belt keeps churning out talent and shows no signs of stopping.
It’s not just academy products who are benefitting from Cali’s commitment to youth. Full back Frank Fabra came through at Envigado but his performances for Cali have seen him called up to the last couple of national team squads, while the likes of Johan Mojica and Carlos Rivas have also earned moves abroad following spells for La Amenaza Verde. Rather than purely as a seedbed for Colombian talent, Cali is also showing itself to be an ideal finishing school as well.
In the recent Colombian Clausura Cali were unable to repeat the feat and secure back-to-back titles, losing out in the quarter-final to Medellin behemoths Atletico Nacional. However, with their Apertura triumph, they have demonstrated the importance of a strong youth set-up, not just in terms of balancing the books through export sales, but as a sustainable model for long term success on the pitch for club and country too.
Written by Tom Robinson