Thousands of agents and managers are out to find the new Lionel Messi: they seek out child footballers around the world and strike deals around them, in an uncontrollable business that FIFA is keen to stop.
“The business is to buy cheap and hope that the cheap purchase, which is a child from a poor country, may transform into a goldmine, as in the case of Messi,” says Juan Pablo Meneses, an expert in the child football market.
“The obsession of contemporary football is to find the new Messi.”
Meneses, a Chilean author who wrote the book Ninos futbolistas (Child footballers), thinks the success of signing Argentine Messi when he was just 13 is to blame for the child signings boom that Barcelona experienced, which led to a FIFA penalty on Wednesday.
FIFA banned Barcelona from signing players next season for violating regulations in the signing of minors, a market that has grown massively in recent years.
“There is no limit. It’s like any obsession for consumption. There is no limit in a market society,” Meneses said.
“However, what FIFA are doing with Barcelona makes me think that, although they are not setting a limit, for the first time they are issuing, like never before, a warning about something that is happening and which they cannot control,” he said.
Meneses travelled around Latin America for two years, trying to buy a child footballer as part of his research.
“I always say that Messi is the main person to blame for all that is happening, because, just as on the pitch he makes it seem like any move is easy, in the world of commercial transactions he makes it seem as if his case was an easy way to get rich: buy a poor child, from a poor city, in a poor country, for a few thousand euros, and in not too long he will be worth hundreds of millions,” he said.
Barcelona have dominated world football over the past decade, mainly thanks to players produced from their youth scheme, such as Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Victor Valdes.
All of them – European champions with Barcelona and, except Messi, world champions with Spain – grew up in La Masia, a youth training centre that Barcelona have always been proud of as the world’s best footballer factory.
“(Barcelona’s) development model has always received the express recognition of FIFA, La Masia has always been used as an example of good practice,” the Spanish club said on Wednesday, after the sanctions were made public.
Barca’s philosophy has led them to great international success, and efforts are in place to try to export their model to other countries.
“It is being copied in Germany, by taking (Josep) Guardiola there, it is being copied in England by taking Barcelona officials to teams such as Manchester City,” Meneses said.
“Barcelona have innovated like no one else in their recruitment process. Today, there is not one very talented 10 or 12-year-old child who hasn’t been scouted by Barcelona. Those signings that Barcelona are being penalised for, who are 15, 16 years old, had in fact already been noticed by Barcelona since they were 7 or 8 years old. The thing is not all of them make it, and what happens to those who don’t?” Meneses wondered.
The Chilean expert thinks the FIFA ban may be a turning point in the lucrative business of child signings, although he remains somewhat sceptical about the moment that FIFA have chosen.
“The issue is, why now, and why Barcelona. I have two possible explanations: one is to attack Barcelona directly…and the other may be related to a slight, nice image clean-up for FIFA 70 days before the World Cup starts in Brazil, the country whose child footballers are the most expensive in Europe,” the expert said.
Current UEFA president Michel Platini has always been against signing children under 18.
“On principle, I am against transfers of minors,” Platini told dpa in Zurich a year ago. “Every country has rules about that, and they should be respected. If the rules are being respected, there is nothing one can do against it.”
Meneses noted that, in this day and age, finance is as important as goals for football clubs, and they always seen to make money out of signings, with adults and children alike.
“It is likely that in this era we will get a daughter by Messi together with a son by Cristiano Ronaldo, and when they are 20 we will send them to a paradise island to cross them and sell the resulting child to an investment fund. That is football these days. That’s why I call it post-football,” Meneses said.