Villarreal CF’s youth academy has not only produced an array of playing talent; it is allowing the club to develop its internationalisation strategy. Just under a year ago, the club nicknamed the Yellow Submarine arrived in Miami in partnership with LaLiga to help promote the club’s training methodology with the Villarreal Academy project. Organising a series of exclusive events in the city and receiving significant media attention, the initiative showed how youth football could help define the club’s brand and expand its international audience.
This venture is just an example of the global effort that the club is making to promote grassroots football, help young players to improve and create commercial growth. Its latest football school has just opened in Montreal, Canada taking the total number of Villarreal CF academies around the world to 22, with nine in the USA, two in Canada and others spread across Sweden, Argentina, Australia, South Korea, China and Japan.
As Juan Antón de Salas, the club’s international director, explained: “We know that our academy is an asset and that people know it is one of the best in Spain. Our academy group is one of the biggest in a recreational sense, where each centre does certain things in their own way.”
“We live in a world where many recreational football schools are being shut down and where only the professional ones are left, so we believe we should grow this project as much as possible because it’s a way to be connected to various communities.”
North America’s historic relevance for the club
Villarreal CF currently has the greatest overseas presence in North America, both in terms of international academy centres and club events. The LaLiga Santander club operates sites located in Puerto Rico, North Carolina, Virginia, Nebraska, New York, Nevada, Texas, Florida and Maryland.
“North American players often have a Latin American or European background, so they have strong links with football,” Antón explained. “In terms of registered players, it’s a region with a lot of footballers. These youngsters are keen to improve within a system, one that is different to what they’re used to. This has made it more natural for us to establish ourselves in that market.”
“Villarreal CF has a tradition of signing North American players, from the Italian-American Giuseppe Rossi to Jozy Altidore, who was signed for a then-MLS-record transfer fee when he was 18,” he continued. “More recently, we’ve had Mukwelle Akale from Minnesota in our B team. Of all our international markets, this is the region where we’re most active and now we have the 2026 North America World Cup on the horizon.”
Global expansion in tandem with LaLiga
The club’s international growth is very closely linked with LaLiga’s own expansion across the world. “When the youngsters in our academies in the USA sign with the Villarreal CF academy, they’re partly signing for a LaLiga academy,” Antón said.
“We are aligned with the international expansion of LaLiga and we try to do it with the best tools possible,” he added. "For us, one way in which we think we can support the international brand of LaLiga is by participating in training projects and by doing so with the closeness that distinguishes Villarreal CF.”
There are two models of academy in the Villarreal CF network: affiliated schools and official partners. To choose the best partners, the club evaluates the value chain of a local partner and looks to ensure that the relationship between the partner and Villarreal CF is positive for both parties. For the club, this is about respecting the values of LaLiga’s brand and Villarreal CF’s brand and about having a presence in a place where things are done in a certain way.
“When LaLiga asks the club to join in on a project, we’re always there because we see the enormous work being done by LaLiga and we see how TV rights money increases each year,” Antón said. “Our way of contributing to this momentum is to keep working together.”
Community as a business asset
This close-knit relationship with partners was demonstrated during the COVID-19 lockdown, where the club brought all coaches that were based abroad back to Spain. Teleworking was used to remain in contact and workshops were held with the parents of the children registered at the various academies.
“The parents really appreciated our concern and the fact that we explained ways to keep training, so that they could apply this to their children,” recalled Antón. “Business is important, but it is essential that the presence of Villarreal CF and of LaLiga is positive,” he added.
The club views community as a business asset and Antón believes this helps to attract youngsters to the club’s offering. “We hope that when somebody is unsure about which academy to join and when one of the options is a Villarreal CF academy that they’ll pick ours because they know they’ll be treated well and that we’ll focus on them, their education and their chances of going to Spain,” he said.
To demonstrate the connection shown by the club towards its academy players, Antón gave the example of Fernando Niño, a first-team player who suffered a ligament injury back when he was 17. At the same time, a player in the North Texas academy suffered this same injury. “What we did was we put the two players in touch so that Fernando could express support and tell his story of how he overcame the same injury to make it to the first team,” Antón explained. “This connection and this closeness is an added value of our academies.”
Asia: Another interesting market for Villarreal CF
Brands and sponsors from China have also taken an interest in Villarreal CF because of the club’s training methodology. The club already has nine years of experience and relationships within the Asian country. There are various ways in which the Yellow Submarine is present in China, including three schools that it operates through Wanda, one of the group’s partners.
Villarreal CF has an account on the Chinese social media site Weibo with more than 800,000 followers, one of the largest fanbases in the country out of all Spain’s clubs. “This isn’t achieved solely by having an academy there,” Antón stated. “It’s achieved through closeness and the opportunities we’ve had to interact with China. We have a training programme, but we’ve also participated in many events. For example, we had a player from China’s Under-23s team who visited our facilities, who received medical treatment there and who trained with us.”
Elsewhere in Asia, the club is present in five different cities in South Korea, with training programmes and events run through a partnership with a local academy. In Japan it runs an official affiliate school and has recently gained added profile here through the loan signing of Takefusa Kubo from Real Madrid.
As Antón said: “This has meant there was great interest from Japan during pre-season, with a lot of interest from youngsters. The academy in Japan even sent him a greeting. We also have a South Korean player in our B team and a Chinese player in our C team. This helps the club to send positive messages and helps the LaLiga brand to continue to grow its presence and to continue looking to the future in Asia.”
A bespoke plan for each academy
The methodology used by Villarreal CF at the club’s academies can be very specific to each centre, with methodology applied to local playing styles and cultures. As such, the club’s approach is adaptable based on each community and region, in order to maximise the benefits of Villarreal CF’s presence.
As an tool of internationalisation, the academies are treated as if they were branches of Villarreal CF. From the president to the newest employee, the objective is to be an open club and to highlight the things the club do well so that others can follow along the same path.
“The club will always strive for anyone who wants to get involved with football to know that the best football in the world is played in LaLiga and with Villarreal CF and that you can learn and improve by approaching these two brands,” Antón concluded.