Jorge Raffo: Bringing spirit of South America to European Academies
Written by Benjamin Aceiton Rojas — March 30, 2023
JORGE RAFFO is a renowned youth developer whose mission is to bring the culture of South American street football to European youth development.
The Argentine has worked in Europe since 2017, when he became Academy Director at Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine. Under his leadership the club developed players including Mykhailo Mudryk, who was an £88.5m signing for Chelsea during the January transfer window, as well as the core of the Ukraine side that won the Under-20 World Cup in Poland in 2019.
In 2020, Raffo became Academy Director at Elche, the small-town team with one of the most productive Academies in La Liga.
However, Raffo developed his reputation as a stellar youth developed in his homeland of Argentina. He was the first Sports Director of Barcelona's Argentina Academy and then became Academy Director at Boca Juniors, the famous Buenos Aires club he himself had once played for.
Those to graduate from the Academy during Raffo's time included Rodrigo Betancur, now a Tottenham and Uruguay midfielder.
I was very fortunate to interview Raffo (in Spanish) and find out more about about his career journey, core principles and experiences of working with players like Mudryk.
Raffo played professionally for clubs including Boca Juniors before beginning his coaching career in their Academy, working with the younger age groups. He then became a Head Coach in the Primera Nacional, Argentina's second tier, before "realising my true vocation and passion: working with youngsters and teaching them football."
In 2006, he was appointed as Sports Director of Barcelona’s youth project in Buenos Aires. This was the Spanish side’s subsidiary in Argentina.
"I was chosen by Barcelona to develop a project for a grassroots football Academy in Argentina, where children aged from six to 16 would be selected and trained," he told TGG. "The project involved teaching and transmitting the Barcelona methodology in Argentina. It was successful in its implementation and involved hundreds of football players."
Then he returned to his beloved Boca as Academy Director in December 2011. A number of Academy graduates from his time there are now plying their trade in Europe: Nahuel Molina (Atlético Madrid), Leonardo Balerdi (Marseille), Leonardo Balerdi (Marseille), Nicolas Capaldo (Red Bull Salzburg), Facundo Colidio (Inter Milan) and, of course, Bentancur.
In 2016, Raffo decided it was time to bring his methods to Europe and he took up an offer to become Academy Director at Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine.
“Coming to Europe was always one of my big goals,” he told me. “It was an enormous responsibility to show the football world why three of the best players in history - Maradona, Messi and Di Stefano - came from Argentina. I came to Shakhtar Donetsk, where I had an interesting challenge, as the club was not known for transferring its stars internationally, and where the percentage of youth players going up to the first team was very low.”
That soon changed, with Mudryk at the vanguard of a crop of exciting homegrown players. And in 2019, six Shakhtar graduates were in the Ukraine side that won the U20 World Cup in Poland - the country's first ever international title.
"During our period at Shakhtar, Maksym Chekh, Valerii Bondar, Oleksii Kashchuk, Yukhym Konoplia, Danylo Sikan and Viktor Korniienko were U20 world champions and first-team regulars," Raffo remembered. "This was a boom time for the club and made a significant impact on my work. Mudryk has the potential to be super elite and is the most crucial player in the history of our Academy so far."
Since July 2020, the Argentine has been Academy Director at Elche, the club based in Alicante in south-east Spain, who boast one of the most productive Academies in La Liga despite being one of the smallest clubs.
"Today, we rank fourth in Spain for productivity, behind only Barcelona, Real Madrid and Real Betis," Raffo explained. "For me, it is a tremendous source of pride, because the strategic plan we have developed has allowed us to have talents playing in senior teams at 16, 17 and 18 years of age.
“We've made big differences in the region with this, with very well-stimulated players, and we've been able to give a debut to one of the youngest players in our history at 17-years-old (midfielder Rodrigo Mendoza).
"For me, a player who debuts at 22 is no longer a talent as such, they are past the age. The greatest footballers of all times have debuted at the age of 17 and 18. This doesn't mean older players don't still have a chance to exploit their talent, but this is the general rule.
"I think a tremendous generation is coming up in the next few years, all developed in the 5 v 5 and 8 v 8 formats. All this comes from being able to put the players to work in the duel, exposing them to the fact they can win these 1 v 1 duels. This has led to our players being called up by national teams and gives the first-team coach the confidence to give them debuts.
"There is great credit to the first-team coach who dares to give them their debut."
STREET FOOTBALL AND THE SPIRIT OF SOUTH AMERICA
Raffo says he has brought the spirit of street football to his jobs in European football.
"I am always asked why South American football produces so many talented players, which is why I have designed over the years a methodology that reproduces street football, where you learn to play by playing," he said. "Because of the remarkable progress in infrastructure and economy, the asystematic has slowly become systematic.
“Using a methodology that respected the culture of the Argentine player, such as street football, develops technical and creative players naturally. My goal is to transform the systematic into asystematic again but adapt to the infrastructure and resources we have today in modern football.
“The child must learn to know their own body. Through the Coerver method and the simple fact of learning by playing, the children are encouraged to touch the ball many times each time they play.
"When I was a child, with my siblings, we played for about four hours daily. Due to modernity and the current circumstances of society, this is not the case as much as it used to be. Our way is to try to replicate the simplicity of street football and create an environment for the children to play against other children in 1 v 1s, but with the chance to combine with others in the 5 v 5 matches they play.
"At the early stages (seven to 12), we are looking for the player to have the instinct to feint and 'cheat'. He can cheat well in a reduced space. The South American player should constantly fake in the environment in which he operates because he faces opponents in confined spaces and the pitch quality is not good."
Raffo says that when he arrived at Shakhtar in 2017, he found a club that had struggled to produce players who could win these 1 v 1 duels.
"The 2014/15 Champions Youth League final (which Shakhtar lost to Chelsea) taught me that the Ukrainian boys could not often win individual duels in defence and attack," he explained. "This made us work a lot on the 1 v 1s in coaching and in our statistics too. We saw that when a boy over 18 was winning more than 50% of his individual duels in attack and defence, he was usually ready to be projected to the first team.
"We allowed the player - especially the technically gifted and talented player - to have the freedom to dribble. In the case of Mudryk, we realised that this player was so talented that instead of adapting Mudryk to the team, we adapted the team to Mudryk.
“Why? Because I can't limit the creativity of a player who can pass to all the players and get the ball into the goal. For me, it was a huge learning experience, because sometimes we coaches want to over-manage and unconsciously we limit the creativity of our players."
YOUNGER AGES: STIMULATING CREATIVITY
Elche's Academy has a total of 25 teams, with a pre-Academy, Academy and 'subsidiary' team (Under-23s). The pre-Academy ranges from three to six years-old and the game format here is 5 v 5.
“For me, the grassroots football project is not to win championships at an early age," Raffo said. "For me, one of the obsessions we have here is to stimulate the player's creativity. In different sectors we stimulate 1 v 1, 2 v 1, 4 v 3 and 4 v 4 and so on and increase the level of complexity".
The 8 v 8 format is introduced between the ages of seven and 12. Then, in the U12s, "we divide the 11 v 11 pitch into four parts, mini-matches are played, and we make the tasks more complex to get the players used to the new pitch dimensions and the way of playing in larger dimensions with more players."
Raffo added: "In the last six months with the U12s, we start to transition from 8 v 8 to 11 v 11 football. The training sessions have three moments. The first is approximately 20 minutes of a closed component or task. Here there is no decision-making and the player practices individual technical execution or associated technique by repeating the execution repeatedly.
"Then we come to the open component tasks, which can be one or two exercises with possession games or small situations where the player has to make decisions. And finally comes the integrated component, which means game-reality situations.
"I don't think that we as coaches have to do new exercises every day. As a player, I must consolidate the concepts and then move on to a new one without forgetting what I was trained in. When we study mathematics, we need to repeat the exercises to master them and remember them.
"You can repeat the exercise, but after repeating it, we change the conditions and go deeper into the concepts being taught. Good players find the best answers because they have already trained them. If you have to identify it, it's because you haven't experienced it, and you have to look for a solution you don't know yet.
"As a coach, I must manage and design real game situations, so the player finds the solution. For me, a player who plays well is a player who can find the best answers in different moments of the game."
After the age of 17, Raffo and his coaches implement "individual strategic work" with players.
"The player must handle a series of concepts of different positions in the offensive and defensive phase, which allow him to have an effective and creative response to attract the attention of the first-team coach,” the Argentine told me.
The players handle different technical and tactical variations specific to their positions on the pitch and develop flexibility in adapting to different tactical systems.
"With the older categories, we train individually by position on the first day of training each week," Raffo added. "In both offensive and defensive work, the players are trained in movements specific to their position. We don't have a process like Ajax, where a former player takes all the players specific to a position and works with them on the concepts of that position.
"What we do is a boy comes in in the afternoon and works with one of the coaches individually. For us, consolidation is essential because I believe in improving by repeating individual movements. I am not afraid of analytical practice."
Raffo also talks about the "biotype" of a footballer, meaning their characteristics and identity.
"The biotype of the footballer is another aspect they have to identify in themselves," he said. "I try to visualise the biotype of the player, compare him with someone more or less known in the football world, and work specifically with him according to the biotype he has."
Despite this individual biotype, the older Academy player needs to have a broad tactical understanding in order to be successful.
"A footballer has to know a wide panorama of the game. He has to know how to play with a stopper, three defenders, two central midfielders, two strikers, two wingers. Doctors don't only know how to cure measles, and they know how to cure all diseases.
"The player's versatility is key to the level he can achieve in the future. The best players solve problems for the coach."