Anyone who has been fortunate enough to watch FC Barcelona on the soccer pitch would likely be enchanted by effortless passing plays and tactical attacks. While marveling at the seemingly inherent chemistry between players like Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas, it is clear that these men have played together since they were kids.
While some clubs buy their players in multi-million dollar transfers, Barcelona prefers to grow them. Barcelona scours the world for the best potential footballers. Children as young as eight are brought to live and train together at the legendary La Cantera youth academy.
It sounds like a dream come true for a child aspiring to be a superstar. Indeed, the successes of these academies are often judged by the quality and quantity of professional players they churn out. Unfortunately, the majority of these young athletes will never become professionals. They will be released by their academy while they are still teenagers, forgotten by the soccer world.
This is the nature of a competitive industry where club scouts are given the near impossible task of determining which fourth graders are most likely to develop into world-class midfielders. This method of player development is now fully-ingrained into soccer culture. FIFA video games even have a youth academy function in their career modes.
While the careers of successful youth academy graduates are well-documented, the stories of those not selected are not as easy to find. Players who attended local academies are not of great concern — they likely continued at their own school during their youth careers and lived with their parents. Their experiences at a professional youth academy will probably go down as an interesting deviation in an otherwise normal childhood.
Of greater concern in this era of rapid globalization is the well being of children who are recruited from far away countries. Families can be separated or uprooted in the pursuit of soccer glory, with no guarantees of it working out. As the players grow into their early and mid-teens, the group is whittled down to only the most promising prospects. There is tremendous pressure on the young player to perform and make the sacrifices of his family worthwhile.
Soccer players only have to be 15 years old to sign a professional contract and start making some serious money. It is also the age when soccer clubs start treating them less like children and more like stocks, selling the contracts of the most promising players to wealthier clubs for a massive profit. Before turning 15, players are free to accept offers from other teams and leave with little or no compensation for the club that has been training them. This is a problem in poorer countries, where top players — and multi-million dollar assets — are poached by European teams.
This dog-eat-dog model is unlikely to change fundamentally, but there are many possible ways to improve the system. Academies should strive to emulate Barcelona’s method. Barcelona is renowned for the quality education they provide to their recruits. Their academy prides itself on not just developing great soccer players, but developing great people as well, regardless of whether they make it as an athlete or not.
However, less wealthy academies don’t necessarily have the funds to provide quality education to their players. This is why FIFA should introduce rules regarding mandatory compensation for clubs whose youth is poached by wealthy teams. This money can be designated for providing educational opportunities for young players in poorer countries regardless of their success as footballers. In this way, soccer can fulfill its potential to be more than just a business and tangibly improve the lives of youth through sport.