Fetishizing underage players is dumb and only leads to heartbreak

For a time in the late 90s’, there existed a trend that perhaps shaded a bit too colonialist for many. European soccer clubs sought out relationships with African teams, with some even going so far as to buy the club. That club then became a feeder team for the European side, allowing them greater access to players. Ajax and Feyenoord, the giants of Dutch soccer, took it a step further. They not only bought out or started clubs, but they opened entire academies on the continent, hoping desperately to find Africa’s hottest young thing.

In 1997, Feyenoord signed Bonaventure Kalou from the refreshing-sounding Ivorian club ASEC Mimosas – from whence they later also sourced his young brother, Salomon, who would go on to have a solid career at Chelsea. The Kalous were such a success at Feyenoord that — possibly confused about what’s the Ivory Coast and what’s not — it started a club in Ghana the next year. In a decade and a half, that effort has produced one Feyenoord player, Mohammed Abubakari, who never made an appearance for the first team in Rotterdam.

Ajax, not to be outdone by their arch-rivals, built their own Ghanaian academy in 1999. The four-time European champions had no compunctions about admitting that, by sifting all the local Ghanaian talent through its academy, it hoped to find a gem or two and save millions on transfer fees and salaries. But in 2003, Ajax sold its shares in the club for a symbolic fee and walked away. The three Ghanaians to play for Ajax’s senior team during that time had all been developed by different teams in Ghana.

Soccer’s brief, misguided neo-colonial era died a quick and merciful death, with most other clubs that invested in Africa quickly losing interest as well. Still, there were agents famous for bringing underage African players over to Belgium, sometimes literally by the busload, in hopes of finding clubs for them later on. Brazilian kids were imported to Europe by the dozen, with unregulated intermediaries likewise profiteering from their hopeless circumstances and speculating on their potential market value. FIFA had to curb that practice by banning the intercontinental transfer of underage players (unless parents move along with them for non-soccer reasons).

But the willingness to commoditize underage soccer players and engage in a glorified form of child trafficking, for the sake of furthering the sport, has endured. At the root of all this malevolence lies the incorrigible fetishization of the future, a yearning for what’s next. It seems that speculation over what a young player might become is always more fevered than that over what a player in his actual prime is. This is true in all sports, where we salivate over the best-case scenarios for the sporting careers of children. There’s something terribly unseemly about it.

Yet on some level, you can understand this affliction of projecting your hopes and dreams on the kids, like a disappointed father who became a shoe salesman rather than a shortstop. The fun in fandom is forecasting better days. And if the days are good now, you might be even more excited about tomorrow’s heroes. Sport is pregnant with potential, and nothing is more so than its prodigies.

But those prodigies have an incredibly poor track record. For every Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen and Lionel Messi who improbably delivers on all the hubbub surrounding them as a teenager, scores of them crumble under the unfathomable pressure. You know about Freddy Adu, of course. But go ahead and Google Froylan Ledezma, Nii Lamptey, Cherno Samba, Kerlon, Haruna Babangida and, saddest of all, Sonny Pike.

Recently, the U.S. soccer crowd has got themselves all excited over a 14-year-old American getting his soccer education at Barcelona’s illustrious La Masia academy, Ben Lederman. A little too excited for comfort. The image of Adu playing opposite Pele in a soda commercial – the implication being ever so clear – is still fresh.

In middle school, I had a physics teacher whose last gig had been at the Ajax academy, teaching math. The man had no interest whatsoever in soccer, but one thing stood out to him: of the hundreds he’d seen coming through his classroom over the years, just a fraction made the senior team. And only one became a household name — Patrick Kluivert. That’s the math of developing soccer players. You cast a wide net, select the most promising and congratulate yourself if one or two make it big. It’s a numbers game, which makes predicting any kind of future to a single kid a folly.

Barcelona understands this. They’ve been scouring the world for pubescent and prepubescent prospects for years. In fact, Barca is currently barred from signing players of any kind for having broken the rules governing the recruitment of underage players. (A slew of those players, including Lederman, are now ineligible to play competitively.) By the way, when Messi joined Barca from Argentina, with his father in tow, he was merely 13.

Real Madrid, which just signed 16-year-old prodigy Martin Ødegaard, is now being investigated for doing the same. After making his debut for the senior national team at 15, the whole soccer world began tugging at the Norwegian, convincing itself that the prospect of immense success and riches could be ensured if only his signature – or presumably that of a legal-aged guardian – could be secured. That the future would be known and safe and comfy with this magical child-prophet locked up in some tower in the furthest wing of the castle.

They do let him out to play with the B-team, however. And you can watch Ødegaard on his debut, right here. It’s best you tune in, because he’s a can’t-miss star, so you’re likely to never get another chance to see him in action.