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Time for Premier League to give youth a chance, says Hargreaves

By Paul Gittings, CNN
updated 3:32 AM EDT, Tue May 7, 2013
Owen Hargreaves plied his trade with Manchester United and Bayern Munich as well as starring for the English national team.
Owen Hargreaves plied his trade with Manchester United and Bayern Munich as well as starring for the English national team.
  • Owen Hargreaves says English football need to give young players opportunities
  • Hargreaves highlights success of Bundesliga clubs and German national team
  • Believes they can extend their domination in the near future
  • Hargreaves played for Bayern Munich, Manchester United and England

(CNN) -- German football is riding the crest of a triumphant wave with two Bundesliga teams in the Champions League final and the national side one of the favorites for the 2014 World Cup.

In contrast, no clubs from the English Premier League -- the world's richest -- made it past the last 16 knockout stage and the English national side continues to under perform at the highest level.

Owen Hargreaves, who played in both the Bundesliga and the English Premier League as well as starring for England at the 2006 World Cup, believes that the English game urgently needs to start investing in young talent, or risk falling even further behind.

"Young players need to play, end of," he told CNN.

"There is a real lack of opportunities for young talent in the Premier League and it needs to be addressed."

Born in Canada, but with a Welsh mother and English father, Hargreaves nurtured his talents in the German system with the Bayern youth set-up.

Read: Europe braced for a new era of German domination

He went on to win four Bundesliga titles with the Bavarian giants as well as the Champions League in the 2000-2001 season.

But Hargreaves admits that during that time German football, particularly at national level, was itself suffering from a lack of youngsters to replace aging stars.

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And he pays credit to the German national football association and Bundesliga clubs in coming up with a plan to address that problem.

"They put an emphasis on pushing young players through," added Hargreaves.

"You can see the result, the Bundesliga improved, the national team improved and it's a lesson for the English Premier League."

The Bayern Munich squad which so comprehensively demolished Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate in the Champions League is packed full of their youth academy protegees.

Thomas Mueller, who headed the final goal of the tie, exciting 20-year-old David Alaba, rampaging full-back Philipp Lahm, midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos, all came through that route.

Defender Holger Badstuber, injured earlier this year, is also a first-team regular who started his career in the academy.

Borussia Dortmund, who stand between Bayern and a fifth Champions League crown, have also invested heavily in young players under the inspirational leadership of coach Juergen Klopp. "He's done an incredible job," said Hargreaves.

Read: Bayern humiliate Barcelona

The two jewels in their crown are acknowledged to be midfielder Mario Goetze -- who will move to Bayern at the end of the season -- and forward Marco Reus, both products of their academy set-up and tipped for stardom at international level.

Defender Mats Hummels ironically learned his trade with Bayern before switching to Dortmund to get regular first-team action.

They have all played a prominent role in thrilling successive victories over Spanish clubs Malaga and then Real Madrid in the semifinal to reach the Wembley showpiece on May 25.

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Hargreaves is full of admiration for the ethos of style of play of the two German finalists.

"They combine Germany efficiency now with flair," he said. "They are mirror images of each other and both thoroughly deserve to reach the final."

Hargreaves moved to Manchester United and was an integral part of the 2007-08 side which won the Premier League title and Champions League, but injuries blighted his career after that double triumph and he was forced to retire at the end of last season aged 32.

During his spell in the English Premier League, which ended at big money Manchester City, he saw at first hand the trend towards clubs using ever more foreign imports to supplement their ranks.

He acknowledges that with the big money on offer, the stakes are high. "Maybe clubs are frightened to give home grown talent a chance," he said.

England manager Roy Hodgson has also seen the danger signs as his side make hard work of qualifying for next year's World Cup in Brazil.

"Quite a few of the games I go to do not have any English players," he was quoted as telling the Daily Telegraph.

"So, one has to be very careful these days when talking about the Premier League and talking about the Englishness of it, because more than two thirds of the players in the league are not English.

"We have one of the lowest number of home-grown players to choose from in all the leagues, which, if you are national team manager, is not a great advantage, to be frank."

Read: Dortmund defeat leaves Mourinho needing the love

In the Bundesliga, the figures for German talent getting a regular game are the polar opposite to the English Premier League, with participation at well over 60% and it's the same percentage in Spain, the reigning World Cup and European champions.

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Barcelona's famed La Masia academy nurtured the genius of Argentina's Lionel Messi and midfield maestros Xavi and Andres Iniesta, who have been the corner stone of Spain's international success.

On the evidence of the 7-0 semifinal mauling by a rampant Bayern, Barca may need to replenish their ranks with younger talent, with Thiago Alcantara and Cristian Tello pushing to graduate to regular first team play.

In England, there are signs that the principles Hargreaves and so many others espouse may finally be incorporated into the national game.

The Premier League has introduced rules that mean eight of the 25-man squads must be "home grown" talent, limiting the number of foreign players over 21 to a maximum of 17.

The Premier League also has high hopes for its Elite Player Performance Plan, which is designed to increase the number of home grown players playing football at the highest level.

While this does not mean the English youngsters will get a starting place, it does broaden opportunity and the English Football Association (FA) has also built a new National Center of Excellence in St George's Park in the Midlands.

For Hargreaves it cannot come a moment too soon and his former Manchester United teammate Gary Neville, now an assistant coach to Hodgson, has also seen the danger signs.

"There's a tipping point and I think we've gone beyond it in England. We're maybe 20 per cent off. We need to give more chances to our own. We're harming ourselves a little bit." he was quoted recently.

Prime target

Ironically, the rising star of the Premier League is a Welshman, Gareth Bale, who won the young player and player of the year awards for his incredible performances this season for Tottenham Hotspur.

Bale was developed by Southampton's academy, which also produced Arsenal and England striker Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain -- proof that young talent can thrive in Premier League if given a chance.

Hodgson and Neville must be ruing the fact they cannot pair former teammates Bale, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the England line-up, while Tottenham will be anxious their star asset remains at White Hart Lane.

After Barcelona and Real Madrid's maulings at the hands of the all-conquering German sides they are rumored to be looking to supplement their own home grown Spanish stars with big money signings and Bale is reportedly a prime target.

Bayern, with former Barca coach Pep Guardiola taking over from Jupp Heynckes next season, are also not adverse to using their financial muscle as well.

Dortmund's talisman Goetze is switching to the Allianz Arena next season -- making it even harder for sides from the EPL and other major European leagues to challenge a likely new era of German domination.

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