Over the past decade, Chelsea have evolved from having a very good youth Academy to an elite Academy — that might even be able to place a couple players in the first-team, he added carefully — and nowhere has that been more evident than in the on-pitch successes of the U18s and U19s, including the seven (7!) FA Youth Cup titles since 2009-10.
One of the key players of that winning U18s campaign a decade ago was a young midfielder named Jacopo Sala, who had joined Chelsea a couple years prior but would move on just a year later, poached by former Chelsea sporting director Frank Arnesen, by then at HSV. Sala was on the move again a couple years later, going back home to Italy, first to Verona, then to Sampdoria. The now 27-year-old has been part of the rotation there since 2016.
Since the topic of youth is an ever-growing source of debate, consternation, and sometimes a bit of joy, Forza Italian Football made sure to ask Sala about his years at the Chelsea Academy in their exclusive interview.
While Sala never quite made it even to a token few minutes with the first-team — he did make the bench eight (8) times in 2010-11 in all competitions, as Carlo Ancelotti was forced into trying out the youth — he doesn’t think think his four seasons in London were a complete waste of time. They’ve helped shape him into the footballer he is today. It’s one of the reasons he’s been able to carve out a very decent professional career for himself, and it’s one of the reasons young talent still comes to the Academy even if the direct pathway to the first-team may not be so viable.
“I was young and it was difficult initially. I didn’t speak the language, I was 15 years old, without my family, without my friends. It was my first time away from home. So initially it was hard. Then, once I started speaking the language, everything became a lot easier. In this situation you have to grow up quickly, there’s other lads who are a couple years older, who are physically stronger. The mentality is very different to the Italian one, so you must grow up quickly and reach that level. I personally enjoyed the culture and lifestyle there, so everything became easier.”
But eventually the need to play significant, meaningful minutes becomes the highest concern. Some reach it sooner, some later. Recently, more and more players seem to reach it sooner — though perhaps that’s got something to do, at least in part, with the Academy getting better and the Chelsea first-team getting worse. Sala does believe that opportunities are getting better for the Chelsea youth however, though, again, that might have something to do with the evolution (or devolution) of the squad.
“I consider myself lucky to have just trained with some real legends like the Chelsea players. Then, I had other requests in order to get more playing time, as it was very difficult to find space at Chelsea, as we have seen with other players in recent years. Only now some youngsters are managing to play in the senior team. Chelsea are a great club with top level players, so it’s extremely difficult to break through. So even just training with them is, for me, an honour. I wanted to play, to show my qualities, and that’s why I left in the end. If I could choose I would have stayed at Chelsea.”
Sala, who’s more often found at right full back than midfield these days, may have only been here briefly, but Chelsea have never left his heart.
“I have been following Chelsea ever since I left, it’s [a club] in my heart. I grew up there, I was young and I spent my teenage years there. So I always follow Chelsea.”
-Jacopo Sala; source: Forza Italian Football
Best of luck to Sala and Samp as they make a late push for the European spots in the Serie A. They currently trail four other teams by three points in the congested upper mid-table of the Italian league.