I have been nurturing a theory for a number of years now. Actually, it's more of a fear than a theory. A fear that Argentina and Brazil will run out of great players.
These two countries have given way more than their fair share of the world's top stars to the sport. But the economics of the modern game mean that the top South Americans inevitably end up playing in Europe. Well, "end up" is hardly the way to put it. It's getting to the point where an increasing number of these stars almost "start off" playing in Europe. For the European money-bag clubs are snatching away the best prospects at ever-younger ages.
A situation that carries an enormous contradiction. For the younger the players are when they are carted off to Europe, the less they will be typical Argentine or Brazilian players -- which, on the face of it, is what the European clubs want.
FIFA regulations forbid players younger than 18 from being traded internationally. Yet there seem to be loopholes. Particularly when top clubs are involved. The case of the Mexican Carlos Vela -- purchased by Arsenal from Chivas Guadalajara right after the 2005 U-17 World Cup, and immediately packed off to Spain -- sticks in my mind.
So Brazil and Argentina stand a pretty good chance of being unable, in the future, to develop their own stars. They will lose them, at age 18 at the latest. Those players will then be drilled (whoops, I mean "coached" of course) into the European way of doing things. Which is not the South American way.
I'm talking of Brazil and Argentina, but the problem applies equally to Uruguay and Paraguay, to Chile, increasingly to Bolivia and Venezuela. Maybe even to the USA.
And of course, to Africa -- though here the stylistic difference between African and European soccer is not so great. What distinguishes the Latin game is its artistic element. The Africans have less of that and their more physical approach makes them more easily adaptable to the European game.
I watch Brazilian and Argentine league games, and have more or less managed to convince myself that the caliber of play is not what it was 20 years ago. How can it be when all the stars -- and I really do mean all -- are playing in Europe? They are replaced by youngsters, some of them pretty good -- but that merely compounds the problem. Because then the youngsters are in the shop window, they are called upon to mature earlier -- and the Europeans will sweep them off as well.
My fear received some confirmation with the playing of the World Club Cup in December. The South American representative was not from Argentina, nor from Brazil -- but from Ecuador. To further complicate the situation, three of LDU's top players were Argentine.
I had thought to receive more bad news from the South American under-20 championships, currently being played in Venezuela. For a start I expected a goodly number of these youngsters to be already signed with European clubs. Not so, I'm happy to notice. These are the countries with (in brackets) the number of players with European clubs: Argentina (1), Bolivia (2), Brazil (0), Chile (0), Colombia (1), Ecuador (0), Paraguay (2), Peru (4), Uruguay (2), Venezuela (3).
Only 15 players out of 200 -- and most surprisingly, only one from Argentina (its captain Emiliano Insua is with Liverpool in England) and none at all from Brazil.
I hope that is good news, that it means that a large majority of these players can spend a few more years helping the soccer of their native country, developing in their natural style.
There is another angle to this quandary -- also not an encouraging one. Young players in South America -- or anywhere in the world, really -- know that the big money is in Europe. If they have agents, as many of them do, those agents will be encouraging them to become the sort of players to attract the attention of European clubs. We are back to the great contradiction. The very qualities that the Europeans admire in the South Americans -- their ball skills and artistry -- are precisely what the players will be required to temper on their arrival in Europe, where the game is -- so it is claimed -- "more physical."
So: will the young South Americans start modifying their style before the Europeans come calling, hoping to attract their attention?
Is there any evidence of a more physical game at the current under-20 games Venezuela. A difficult thing to measure. I really couldn't say. Though -- and this is obviously a personal impression -- neither Brazil nor Argentina has greatly impressed me so far. Brazil labored to beat Bolivia 2-1 and has tied Paraguay; while Argentina has tied Colombia and Venezuela, and beaten Peru 2-1.
Those are not impressive results. Uruguay has done better, winning all three of its games so far and scoring nine goals. The smaller nations are getting better, no doubt, but I cannot escape the feeling -- the fear -- that the caliber of the soccer played by Argentina and Brazil is declining.
I think we can thank Europe for that. So the crucial question becomes reduced to an Aesop fable: are the greedy Europeans in the process of killing off the soccer goose that lays the golden eggs?