Is This Kid A Soccer Star? Sign Him Up Just In Case

Originally published on August 14, 2011 11:40 am

South America has produced more than its share of soccer superstars, and team Real Madrid is banking on Leonel Angel Coira of Argentina to be one of them. Last week, the club signed the soccer prodigy to a one-year contract. When the contract expires, young Coira will be all of 8 years old.

"Well, everyone's looking for the next big thing," Tim Stannard, who writes for the soccer publication FourFourTwo, tells Weekend Edition Sunday guest host John Ydstie.

"It's a low-cost gamble. Of course, there is cost involved in looking after the kids, coaching them over the years," he says, "but whether you want to keep the player to become a homegrown superstar ... or indeed if you eventually end up selling the player, it can be an enormous benefit on your investment."

Stannard says Lionel Messi from Barcelona, who some would call the best soccer player in the world, was signed at the age of 13. He was in the youth academy and made his debut at 17.

Coira will not get paid as part of his contract. Stannard says he will be educated as normal and then head to the Real Madrid training center with 200 other kids. Beneath its famous first team, Real Madrid has under-18, under-17 and under-16 teams.

Even if they don't make it to the first team, the young soccer players can still make a good career out of the sport, Stannard says. They may have a shot at another club or lower down the leagues.

"Barcelona and Real Madrid and a club like Manchester United are the three biggest, most famous and best clubs in the world, so to get to the very top is immensely difficult," he says.

Signing promising young soccer players, Stannard says, can be a lucrative business for smaller clubs.

"If you sign a youngster at the age of 10, 11, 12, bring him up, you can actually sell him on perhaps at the age of 18, 19, 20 for a huge profit," he says. "In fact, that's actually how some clubs survive."

The word "exploitation" doesn't come up much, Stannard says, but he says it is seen as very tough for the young players who get rejected.

"[Managers] do say the hardest job in the world is when they have to bring in youngsters into their office and say, 'Sorry, you've been with us six, seven years; you're not going to make it in our first team.'"

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JOHN YDSTIE, host: Listen up, soccer moms. Last week, Real Madrid signed an Argentine prodigy named Leonel Angel Coira to a one-year contract. The club is betting that someday he'll be mentioned in the same breath with his countryman, Leo Messi, who plays for rival Barcelona FC and is perhaps the best player in the world. Messi will have a while to wait a while though - young Leonel is only seven years old. We asked Tim Stannard, who writes for soccer publication FourFourTwo magazine, to explore the issue with us. He joined us on Skype from Madrid. Welcome, Tim.

TIM STANNARD: Nice to be here. Thank you very much.

YDSTIE: So, why would a team want to sign a seven-year-old? I mean, why not wait until he's older or maybe even a teenager?

STANNARD: Well, everyone's looking for the next big thing, so even if it might take 10, 12, 13 years. And perhaps to give an example of the best futbol player in the world, and some will say Leo Messi from Barcelona. He was signed at the age of 13. And they brought him into the youth academy and he made his debut at the age of 17. It's a low-cost gamble. Of course, there is cost involved in looking after the kids, coaching them over the years. But when you want to keep the player to become a homegrown superstar, it's priceless. Or indeed, if you eventually end up selling on the player, it can be an enormous benefit on your investment.

YDSTIE: What type of contract do you sign a seven-year-old to? And will Coira get paid?

STANNARD: He won't get paid, no. During the day he'll be educated as normal. And then afterwards, he would go to the Real Madrid training center with 200 other kids. Real Madrid, of course, have their very famous first team. But they have under-18s, under-17s, under-16s. And you will have hundreds and hundreds of kids below.

YDSTIE: So, what about the kids who don't make it? There are going to be, you know, it's a hundred and one chance, or a thousand and one chance that they might make it. Is there any debate in Europe about whether, you know, you're putting them in a special academy spending all this time training and then what do they do if they don't make it?

STANNARD: They may not make it into the first team of their club but it doesn't mean they still can't make a very good career as a professional futbol player at another club or lower down the leagues for a smaller one. Barcelona and Real Madrid and a club like Manchester United are the three biggest, most famous and best clubs in the world. So, in order to get to the very top is immensely difficult. It's actually a very, very lucrative business for smaller clubs if you sign a youngster at the age 10, 11, 12, bring him up, you can actually sell him on perhaps at the age 18, 19, 20 for a huge profit. In fact, that's actually how some clubs survive.

YDSTIE: Does anybody in Europe ever complain that this is exploitation?

STANNARD: No. It's never really come up. It's seen as tough for the kids to get rejected. And when you hear managers, they do say the hardest job in the world is when they have to bring in youngsters into their office and say, sorry, you've been with us six, seven years; you're not going to make it in our first team.

YDSTIE: Tim Stannard writes for the soccer publication FourFourTwo magazine. Thanks for talking with us, Tim.

STANNARD: A pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.