This feature is part of The Academy Way

On the northern edge of Buenos Aires, on the banks of the Rio de la Plata, resides a giant of Argentine club football: Club Atlético River Plate. The history of the sporting club runs deeper than just football as the club accommodates a variety of sports, but its success in domestic and continental competition suggest that the River of Silver yields golden footballers.

Since its founding in 1901, River Plate has amassed 36 Primera División titles, eight national cups including Argentina’s oldest football trophy, the Copa Campeonato, two Copa Libertadores titles, along with a host of South American tournament titles, making it the most successful club in Argentine football.  

River Plate placed ninth on FIFA’s Club of the Century list and rightly so – the wealth of talent the club produces continues to prove that the top clubs in world football still rely on not only what goes on in the academy, but what comes out of it. The result, at River Plate, is crop after crop of first team-ready footballers capable of establishing themselves not only in top South American club sides, but in top clubs in Europe.

Additionally, some of the best players to turn out for La Albiceleste were plucked from the nearby neighbourhoods and groomed by Los Millonarios. River Plate products often form the core of Argentina’s national youth sides in a fiercely competitive player pool comprised of player from other famed academies such as Newell’s Old Boys, Racing, Boca Juniors, Estudiantes, and Independiente.

River Plate’s academy, La Escuela de Fútbol River Plate, begins admitting players at the under-7 level with the aim of producing professional footballers for the first team. The football played at River Plate demands its players to combine skill, intelligence, and tactical nous with the tenacity they bring from playing in local sides and in the streets hoping to be spotted. As such, the footballing curriculum is structured around competencies that translate directly to game play.

The first step for a player is building a sound technical foundation. Scouts comb the streets of Buenos Aires before setting out around Argentina, searching for raw talent in direct competition with River Plate’s nearby rivals, Boca Juniors. The talented identification process must ensure players enter the club system with the understanding they will be taught to play in a system that believes in foundational proficiency and self-discovery at the early ages.

The club firmly believes in age-specific activities and numbers in its training and competition environments meaning there is a heavy emphasis on 2v2, 3v3, 4v4, and 5v5 from the under-7-9 levels. What sets River Plate apart, however, is the club’s proclivity to focus on 4v2, 4v3, and 5v2 situational training at its youngest levels. Such a rigorous introduction ensures players are capable of playing on both sides of the ball from the onset of their journey at the club’s academy.

• • Notable academy graduates: Ángel Labruna (top scorer in Argentine First Division football history), Amadeo Carrizo, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Omar Sívori, Daniel Passarella, Norberto Alonso, Ramón Diaz, Claudio Caniggia, Hernán Crespo, Matías Almeyda, Eder Alvarez Balanta, Ariel Ortega, Marcelo Gallardo, Santiago Solari, Javier Saviola, Pablo Aimar, Martín Demichelis, Andrés D’Alessandro, Javier Mascherano, Gonzalo Higuaín, Radamel Falcao, Mateo Musacchio, Roberto Pereyra, Erik Lamela, Lucas Ocampos, Matías Kranevitter • •

The small-sided game environment is a staple for River Plate’s player until the under-12 level, which sees academy products graduate to the 9v9 format. The belief for the coaches and staff at River Plate is simple: the players need constant contact with the ball in condensed spaces to ensure their development prepares them for the next level. Such an approach also stresses “team play” over individualism. Players are put through their paces five to six days a week, sometimes in front of intrigued onlookers, scouts, and fans of the club.

To build a culture of proficient footballers, passing and receiving are cornerstones of a player’s developmental path. Players then begin to integrate their ability to be dominant individually, but not so far as becoming so individualistic their performance suffers. Evaluations are conducted to assess players in training to ensure players advancing in the club have the requisite playing and learning skill sets to succeed. Those deemed surplus to requirements are naturally let go – a reality that is often more common than those who make it. River Plate’s football is centered on compact defensive play and players learn to operate in packs to win back possession. The academy stresses quick interplay and stretching the opposition in offense to allow playmakers room to operate. The result is a blend of football that combines defensive cohesion with explosive offensive movements.

Due to the quality of other academies in the area and in Argentina, River Plate sets high expectations for its players. From the beginning of player’s journey with the club, he is exposed to the intensity of local and national rivalries at the Escuela de Futbol Infantil level. Additionally, the academy’s teams regularly tour Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico, the United States, and Europe attending the top youth tournaments in world youth football. Such exposure grants players a unique opportunity to do two things: compete against a variety of major clubs and showcase their talent in the hopes they will be spotted by a top team abroad.

A harsh reality for Argentine footballers is the realization that the country’s footballing industry is largely an export business with many of the top prospects making the daunting leap to Europe as early as possible. The effect is often met with a sobering reality that because River Plate produces such an abundance of talent, the next crop of players is never more than a year away from surpassing those who fail to impress scouts from top European sides.

River Plate’s youth sides are often ruthless in their displays against international sides, decimating the competition physically on the field and literally on the scoreboard as evidenced by the Argentine side’s 3-1 triumph over Everton, the thrashing of LA Galaxy under-18s 7-0 at Dallas Cup and River’s under-16’s 4-0 dismantling of Sporting Kansas City’s under-16’s in the Generation Adidas Cup in Frisco, Texas.

On the commercial side of football, River Plate has established a satellite academy in Melbourne, Australia. The world of football development is smaller than ever and as a major club with global appeal, River Plate’s academy is at the forefront of establishing itself in areas still aiming to replicate the level of football the Argentine club is famous for producing. In a country with a reputation for producing some of the world’s best footballers, River Plate is seen as a landing pad for players from North, Central, and South America and a launching pad for those ready to make the transition to European football. Such positioning is crucial for a club to maintain its identity and high standards of footballing pedigree.

Success is no mistake and at River Plate, success is formulaic. The academy’s input is just as important as its output. When River Plate won the 2013 Under-17 World Cup, they defeated Atletico Madrid, Sampdoria and Barcelona along the way, reinforcing that at the youth level, River Plate still produces players like Sebastián Driussi, Augusto Solari, Lucas Boyé, and Guido Rodríguez that will eventually feature in Europe’s best club sides. As of October 2014, River Plate boasted 17 products currently playing in top five European leagues – lucrative business for a South American club in a tough European market.

By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3

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