The cream of the football crop can now be found in Russia ahead of World Cup 2018’s heralded kick-off on Thursday.
But every grand adventure must have a starting point. For these 736 elite athletes, that is in the academy system.
We’ve picked out a selection of elite breeding grounds in a bid to decide which one has made the greatest contribution to this summer’s main event.
This figure isn’t decided purely on sheer volume, rather a subjective look at the players created:
World Cup 2018 players: 12
Famous alumni: Cristiano Ronaldo, William Carvalho, Joao Moutinho
Any success experienced by Portugal has to be shared with Sporting Lisbon.
The dozen players honed, at some stage, at Academia Sporting within the A Selecao das Quinas ranks contribute a grand total of 604 international caps. In Real Madrid icon Cristiano Ronaldo, it produced both the nation’s leading scorer (81 goals), leading appearance maker (150) and the captain of the side who helped inspire a surprise victory at Euro 2016.
To showcase the scale of the contribution, Benfica are next on the list with just five squad members.
Located at rural Alcochete, more than 30 kilometres away from the capital, the facility is one of the most modern and well equipped academies in Europe.
This emphasis on tranquility and a dedication to footballing excellence made the barbaric events of May 15 all the more surprising. A mob of approximately 50 irate supporters charged the centre, leaving several coaches and players blooded.
The fallout from this shocking incident could now cost the outfit more than €100 million (Dh431.4m) in lost transfer fees as the likes of goalkeeper Rui Patricio, defensive midfielder William Carvalho and winger Gelson Martins reportedly push to have their contracts cancelled on the grounds of safety.
World Cup 2018 players: Nine
Famous alumni: Luka Modric, Dejan Lovren, Mateo Kovacic
The grip of Dinamo Zagreb on Croatian football has been a tight – and controversial one.
From childhood prospects to players in adulthood who’ve been sold on to the biggest clubs in the world, their Stadion Hitrec-Kacian home represents a valuable talent mine since its founding in 1967.
Real Madrid metronome Luka Modric is one of nine members of the current roster to come through there, so too 99-cap Lokomotiv Moscow defender Vedran Corluka. Fellow Los Blancos midfielder Mateo Kovacic was attracted aged 13-years old even though he was born in Linz, Austria to Bosnian Croatian parents and was trailed at that point by the likes of Bayern Munich, Juventus and Ajax.
Clubs like Hadjuk Split (AC Milan striker Nikola Kalinic) and Osijek (versatile Besiktas defender Domagoj Vida) cannot match both this volume of footballers produced – and the mega stars that Dinamo creates.
Disgraced ex-chief executive Zdravko Mamic, his brother – and current Al Ain coach – Zoran and several other officials were found guilty last week of corruption. Custodial sentences have been issued on charges that the prosecuted vigorously contest, and plan to appeal.
This high-profile case and lengthy trial has even swept up the generation headed to Russia 2018. Modric has been charged with perjury for allegedly making false statements when questioned about his 2008 move to Tottenham, with Liverpool centre-back Dejan Lovren also being investigated for giving false testimony.
A murky saga in a tale of sporting excellence.
World Cup 2018 players: Eight
Famous alumni: Lionel Messi, Giovani dos Santos, Andres Iniesta
La Masia holds a special place in all football lover’s affections.
Only Brazil’s Santos could claim to have made a similar contribution to the principles of ‘The Beautiful Game’.
The dormitory has housed a rich list of footballing names – and this is the case once again in 2018. Remarkably, Barcelona’s facility boasts international players external to the home country.
Spain’s trophy chasers currently boast four alumnus – centre-back Gerard Pique, left-back Jordi Alba, defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets and lauded attacking midfielder Andres Iniesta.
The most famous name will be wearing the sky blue and white of Argentina – Lionel Messi. A claim to become the greatest footballer of all time by the five-time Ballon d’Or winner will become firmer if belated success at the World Cup can be experienced after the near miss four years ago.
Mexico internationals Jonathan and Giovani dos Santos came through La Masia, before departing for pastures new. Both can now be found at Los Angeles Galaxy.
South Korea winger Lee Seung-woo was a key figure in 2014’s transfer ban about the registration of international players under the age of 18. He was sold to Serie A’s Hellas Verona last summer.
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