By Paul Gardner
Last week I found myself in a sympathetic mood, so it was quite natural that I should suddenly feel sorry for Barcelona. I was reading of how the club was in imminent danger of losing four young players from its much prized and praised youth division.
It seems that Barcelona has failed to learn its lesson, because this has happened before, notably with Francesco Fabregas. Barcelona delayed offering him a pro contract and Cesc -- as he was then known -- was whisked away to Arsenal as a 16-year-old in 2003. A hell of a deal for Arsenal, which didn't pay a cent for this magnificent player. The same thing happened soon afterward with the 17-year-old defender Gerard Pique, kidnapped by Manchester United.
Pique has since returned to Barcelona, and there has been a deal of speculation recently alleging that the club is trying to get Fabregas to return. So much, in fact that the Arsenal chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, let it be known that he is "really pissed off with Barcelona" and has accused them of disrespect for trying to lure Fabregas back to Spain. Which, given how Arsenal obtained the player in the first place, is some nerve.
So poor Barcelona, I was thinking. But not for long. Within a day or so I'm reading how Barcelona are hot on the trail of the "next Lionel Messi." Which reminded me that Barcelona had taken Messi from the Argentine club Newells Old Boys to Spain when he was a mere 13 years old -- but there was a mitigating factor here, as Barcelona was apparently willing to foot the bill for the boy's necessary hormone-treatment, an expensive drug that no Argentine club could afford.
Now, if "reports" (NB we used to call them rumors) are to be believed, 12-year-old Guido Vadala may follow the same trail as Messi. Vadala is, like Messi, an Argentine from Rosario. But assuming that FIFA regulations are to be respected (and that is not always a given by any means) he will not be able to move to Spain until he is 18.
Nevertheless, the boy has already spent two weeks, along with his father, at Barcelona. It seems that Vadala's father, Fernando Vadala, either doesn't know, or doesn't care, about FIFA. He says his job will allow him to "easily" move to Europe, making it therefore possible for little Guido to do the same. Barca, says Sr Vadala "have already offered residency for the whole family." If true, that is a flat-out contravention of the FIFA regulations, which make it clear that a switch of employment by the parents is only acceptable if it is not in any way related to the soccer transaction.
Now, who on earth does one sympathize with here? All the parties seem to be doing quite well out of any possible deal (although that may not apply to Guido's current club Provincial who -- as is the rule with young players -- have no way of retaining him, or of getting compensation for his loss).
So little sympathy is needed here, and certainly none will be coming from this direction. Rather the opposite, because there is something quite distasteful about deals of this sort. A boastful -- not to mention greedy -- tone enters the words of the elder Vadala: "We're in a good position, because other top clubs in Europe are interested in Guido." At the end of this month father and son will travel to Italy, where Inter, Juventus and Atalanta are interested.
That's what it now, inevitably and quickly, comes down to in virtually every aspect of soccer these days: Money. However kindly one may want to look upon matters, there is no escaping that little Guido is up for auction, to be sold, no doubt, to the highest bidder.
A risky business -- but the risks are all being born by the party who has really little influence on the events. Guido himself. No one (repeat, no one) can say with any certainty that a talented 12-year-old is going to turn into a world-class star -- a Lionel Messi. The very fact that this expectation is thrust upon the boy may well prevent it ever being realized, for who knows what damage the persistent promise of fame and fortune might wreak inside a 12-year-old head?
And if it doesn't happen, if the boy fails to live up to the dreams, and the desires, maybe even the demands, of the adults -- then what?
That thought is a basic reality of youth development in soccer. I see no escape from it. I see no limits anywhere -- no high limits to the amount of money or other inducements that might be offered to the player and his family, no low limits to the age of the boys who are the targets for this cut-throat pursuit of talent. It is a harsh thought.