Clouds at the Academy of Light? Could a Uruguayan model damage local youth development?

Jeremy Robson

John McCormick writes: I remember something about trialists not being picked in one or two of our pre-season friendlies, we had a trialist still with us the end of the transfer window – can anyone remember who? – and earlier this week Pete Sixsmith commented on the performance of Gael Andonian, a French born Armenian international who turned out for the U23s against West Bromwich Albion.

At more or less the same time it was mooted that one of our youths, Luca Stephenson, was moving to Liverpool for a fee of about £200,000, although I’ve seen different figures, and I did read somewhere that  Liam Millar might be moving in the opposite direction. He turns 19 this month and we would be his third club as Liverpool signed him from Fulham.

There have always been footballing nomads and people whose contracts aren’t renewed, so trialists coming and going are nothing unusual. But is the movement of young players part of an increasing trend? And is it always above board? Jeremy Robson makes a welcome return to these pages with some observations:

Clubs have always tried to unearth talent as cheaply as possible, but the bigger clubs are finding new ways to acquire and develop talent, and there appears to be an unstinting desire to recruit players at a younger and younger age. Michael Calvin explores these matters in some depth in his excellent book No hunger in Paradise.

Players move around a lot more than they used to do even 5-10 years ago, or at least it seems that way. There’s an international market for players that simply didn’t exist twenty years ago, at least as far as this country is concerned.

As part of that natural process, the movement (dare I say trafficking here?), of younger and younger players has increased dramatically over the last few years. Apocryphal tales abound about youngsters being brought to Europe from far flung corners of the globe on trial, and summarily discarded when they are not considered good enough. As a result, FIFA introduced strict regulations aimed at preventing youngsters being moved across the world without their parents, adequate education and appropriate welfare provision. These appear to be strict for some but apparently rather lax for others. The regulations state that a minor (below 16 years of age) can not move for footballing reasons. This is intended to ensure that a family is moving due to a parent’s work situation or other family reason. So, if 14 year old Diego from Montevideo attracts the attention of Barcelona, or Chelsea, it should prove difficult, if not impossible, for him to move unless his Dad has work to go to, and that employment is the principle reason for relocation – not football. When Diego reaches the age of 16 then different rules apply as he is no longer considered a minor.

remember him?

Some of these regulations are enforced in bizarre and ludicrous fashion. I personally know of one lad who was born in Canada to English parents (and had a UK passport), who was prevented from playing football for his sixth form college, because they had some links to Southampton’s academy. The matter was eventually resolved but the young lad in question was prevented from playing the game he loved because of the regulations.

Mr Sartori doesn’t indicate what sort of age player he is looking for but the FIFA regulations may not be the only obstacle in his way. Historically, most South American players have been little short of a disaster, Scocco, Angeleri, and of course Marangoni, mediocre, Coates, Vergini, average; Thome (the only Brazilian who couldn’t pass), and the solitary graduate in the excellent category, the much loved Julio Arca. South American players generally don’t settle on Wearside.

If you’ve got this far, you may well be thinking that the likes of Man City, Chelsea etc seem able to sign who they want from wherever they may originate.

That does seem to be the case. I don’t know how they get around these rules for youngsters arriving from Africa and South America as well as other parts of Europe. Having had to undergo this process twice for my son in recent years, it’s also clear that a lot of clubs don’t know how they do it either. Speaking to some Academy managers about this matter, there are a lot of people who are simply terrified of the regulations and the consequences of breaking them, to the extent that I even came across one Academy boss who was so far off the pace with regulations that it’s a wonder his club ever managed to sign any players.

Sartori is clearly intent of turning Sunderland into some sort of Uruguayan club, if he gets his way. Apart from the moral and legal ramifications of this, the idea that the A of L will be swarming with the best young talent that Uruguay produces is an interesting prospect but it also raises another salient issue. What happens to our local and home grown talent? We seem to have stepped up to the plate very recently. It would be a disaster if local lads were shoved further down the pecking order.

As a brief aside, Daniel Taylor has produced an interesting piece for The Guardian, about some of the issues surrounding so called ‘feeder clubs,’ and what might be called unscrupulous transfer dealings. You can read it here, and if you wish you can compare it to something in the same paper some five years earlier. Have things changed for the better? 

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