“Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.” William Blake
When Barcelona received a two-window transfer ban for their trade in minors last week, the reaction among the internet wits was predictable. “Must be horrible,” was the gist of it, “a life at Barça earning millions to play football. Wish I was suffering like them.”
But that kind of commentary misses the target as spectacularly as when Lionel Messi hit the bar from the penalty spot against Chelsea in the Champions League a couple of years ago. FIFA’s rules are in place not to spare Lee Seung-woo, Paik Seung-ho, Jang Gyeol-hee, Theo Chendri, Bobby Adekanye or Patrice Sousia a potential future of blaugrana stardom. The regulations on the transfer of minors are to protect the many boys whose lives are destroyed by the game they love.
Football’s talent factories, from Barcelona’s world-renowned La Masia complex all the way down to Barnet’s sophisticated Academy in England’s non-league, are uncompromising places. They funnel hundreds of the most talented available children into what is only a 25-man squad, which is itself generally populated by players imported from other clubs. The chances of a seven-year-old academy entrant making it to the first team are vanishingly small.
Still, for the clubs, the filtrate of the development process has tremendous value, either as a zero-capital-expenditure asset on both the club’s balance sheet and team sheet or as a tradable asset for sale to another club. Some, like Xavi Hernandez or Andres Iniesta, generate such dividends in terms of football performance as to repay the investment in their development many times over.
Yet left over from this process is a human residue. Injury, illness, growth deficiency, bad attitude, the caprices of a coach; a maze of potential obstacles stand in the way of a young player’s accomplishment as a professional. It is all right for the Catalonian Xavi, even for fellow Spaniard Iniesta at a push (although his early childhood near Albacete was spent four or five hours’ driving time from Barcelona, meaning he suffered some displacement as a boy) but those who cross international borders to join clubs’ academies do so to pursue a dream that may never be realised.
The internet wits did have one thing right: spend your youth development at La Masia and you probably will have a future in football somewhere. But not everyone can play for Barcelona, and the prospect of becoming a professional footballer wherever that may be tugs so hard at heartstrings that the process is open to despicable abuse.
The Chilean journalist Juan Pablo Meneses investigated the treatment of the most promising young footballers in nine South American countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru – for his book Niños Futbolistas, or Boy Footballers. “It was easier and cheaper to buy a child than I had expected,” he told FIFPro, the world footballers’ union. “Most of the boys are bought at around the age of 10. Thousands of agents are willing to buy them, with one main objective: to sell the boys with a big profit to clubs abroad.
“Once the transfer has been realised, their business is done. When the child doesn’t make it to the professional level they just leave him behind regardless of his situation.
“The parents do not see the risks. They are just eager for their child to make it as a professional footballer. South American football is now like a factory of footballers for Europe.”
Here is where frightening problems lie. Those who drop off the football factory’s conveyor belt are left often thousands of miles from their family and homeland with an educational background that was sacrificed on the altar of a game they failed to make it in. Where next? The streets?
Still, the desperation of parents runs so deep that sophisticated networks of fraudsters make a lucrative living from the parents of hopefuls. In 2008 the BBC uncovered the existence of a gang of conmen posing as football agents for Manchester United, demanding thousands of pounds from young African footballers’ parents in “registration fees” for an introduction to a life in the game that never materialises.
Although Barcelona have been sanctioned heavily for their six players who were named last week, according to Meneses it was their transfer of Argentina’s Messi that did profound damage to the welfare of young South American footballers. Messi is a fabulous footballer who has repeatedly brought joy to millions of fans. It is probably unarguable that he became the player he is, one of the greatest of all time, as a result of what he learned at La Masia. Yet he was moved from his family home in Rosario to live in Spain. He was playing in Barcelona’s youth teams there by the age of 13.
“The bad situation in which many young footballers find themselves nowadays was more or less initiated by Messi,” he said. “His move to Barcelona at such a young age inspired many agents to buy very young players in their search for a new Messi and – most of all – a lot of money.”
The race for the best talent is driving clubs and agents to run risks with the welfare of youngsters. Commercial incentives prevail over the interests of child protection. What is perhaps most disheartening for me is how there is a whiff of this commercial calculus in how UNICEF has responded to the Barcelona ban.
The international children’s charity counts Messi as one of its Goodwill Ambassadors. It was the first organisation ever to have its name borne on the blaugrana shirt. Its links with Barça run deep and strong. So there is an inevitable suspicion these links influenced UNICEF’s response to INSIDEworldfootball’s questions on the issue last week.
“Lionel Messi is one of the many UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors who are helping to improve the lives of children and women around the world by amplifying the voices of children and mobilizing public awareness and resources for UNICEF,” it said when confronted with Meneses’s perspective of Messi’s legacy for South American children. “Through engagement with our sport partners and Ambassadors, such as Lionel Messi, we can drive genuine, long lasting changes for children and UNICEF is committed to supporting this process.
“We are pleased that since 2006, FC Barcelona has supported UNICEF, demonstrating their commitment to UNICEF’s cause. The partnership has helped to spread the global message of the importance of children’s issues and is helping to provide many children in different parts of the world with the opportunity to receive an education.”
UNICEF will, it seems, try to massage Barcelona’s reputation in the area of child welfare in future. “FC Barcelona has made clear its commitment to working with UNICEF to address issues affecting the well-being of children associated with the club,” it added. “UNICEF’s priorities, in this regard, are to ensure that the rights of the child are being upheld, as a child first, and then as an athlete. Discussions are ongoing between UNICEF and FC Barcelona and we trust that FC Barcelona will earnestly address the best interests of the children associated with the club.”
Meneses’s evidence of child trafficking has not, however, roused UNICEF into any kind of substantive action for the football industry as a whole. “We acknowledge that the protection of children in sport is an industry wide challenge,” UNICEF said. “Addressing the wider contextual issues related to children in relation to sports requires actions by all stakeholders, including governments, sports associations, sports clubs and associated entities.”
This is a staggeringly naïve response. What impetus do clubs have for altering behaviours? Sure, there is the fear of the FIFA regulations being strenuously applied but beyond Barcelona and Chelsea’s case involving Gaël Kakuta (which was overturned on appeal) there has been scant evidence of this. Clubs will surely chance their arms.
UNICEF has grossly missed an opportunity to provide leadership in child welfare against vested commercial interests. For it to conduct a study ahead of issuing exemplary guidelines on how football clubs should deal with minors would have been a welcome response. Instead UNICEF takes it on “trust” that Barcelona will behave better in future. The rest? Football’s problem, apparently.
So meanwhile pitiless agents around the world may continue unhindered in the commerce of child trafficking, driving yet more angels from their doors.
Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.