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Argentina adds fresh beef to exports
According to a report from sports marketing consultancy Euroamericas, Argentina has overtaken Brazil and for the first time in over a decade it has become the main provider of professional footballers worldwide. Argentina is the world's main exporter of professional players.
This may not come as a surprise to many - although relative to their respective populations it is quite astonishing that Argentina should surpass its neighbours - for the southernmost country in South America has often been a leader in exporting footballing expertise. Over a decade ago, the uncorroborated rumour made the newswires that the export of footballers had trumped that of certain commodities: not quite cereal but close to red meat.
The headline begs the question: why? How come Argentina is tantamount to a football factory supplying a seemingly endless streams of young men? As with all complex issues, probably a conspiracy of factors rather than a single reason lies at the heart of this phenomenon.
On the one hand, there is poverty. The clichê about one ball being enough for 20 kids to play with - and often not even a ball is necessary;some scrunched up old rags will do - is true. Poverty also leads many individual young men to strive for a way out, to change their destiny. "My background made it essential for me to take professionalism seriously, " Gabriel Heinze once told me, by way of an answer to why Argentina produces so many talented professionals.
But poverty alone does not suffice to explain this: if that was enough, many territories could claim the same accolade.
Another clichê about Argentinian boys and their ball play is the notion that free-style, vacant lot makeshift pitches are the child's first love. This clichê is less accurate. For decades, the development of kiddy schools and the serious interest in what is known as teaching techniques for the infanto-juvenil categories (childhood and adolescence) have seen the blossoming of an industry which in many other countries is either not present at all or simply a by-product of some individual clubs or institutions.
In Argentina, the list of men who have devoted their skills and knowledge to grooming kids from as young as five is long. They are well-known in the industry, revered and respected in their own right. They do not see child training as a stepping stone towards First Division professionalism.
Ramon Madonni, Jorge Grifa, Jorge Raffo and Jose Pekerman are some of the most established, but the academies and schools are flourishing all over the country. Players such as Carlos Tevez now, and Fernando Redondo or Gabriel Batistuta in the past, are all products of such academies.
Under the guidance of these experts, kids get meals as well as tips on how to hone their skills. The attention to detail is such that the maestros are permanently looking at clubs and models which have excelled, taking from their modus operandi and adjusting it to suit the needs of their particular boys. "I noticed that Ajax (Amsterdam) used techniques of ball control in reduced spaces using Number 5 balls, " Bocha Batista of the renowned Club Parque once explained to me. "I decided to do this, but with much younger kids - the ball is smaller and lighter, so perfectly suited to eight-year-olds. By the time they're 13 or 14, these boys are able to do the same with the bigger ball".
The new standing as the No 1 exporter is important for the domestic industry: it is not just the superstar signings that make the headlines which contribute to this statistical feat, but rather the thousands of workhorses who practice their trade day in day out from Mexico to Moscow. These men are the lifeline of the clubs back home. Often, with an average transfer fee of a handful of a million dollars, a small club can rebuild a stand or upgrade its facilities.
The families often know this potential overseas sale is looming, so increasingly the pressure on the children becomes close to unbearable. I've yet to meet a child-trainer who isn't concerned about the parental expectations on some children, and on the hordes of scouts and agents that loom large on the many and very well organised tournaments and competitions.
This is, after all, an industry in which the buying and selling of children is positively glamourised.
The dangers and downsides of this scenario also abound. For every thousand kids who dream of reaching professional status at most five will. Europe, as a buyer, is looking to put certain restrictions and constraints in place to curb the in-flow of young men who may arrive with big ambitions but could easily end up sleeping rough if things don't work out.
For the players themselves, life as an exported product can also be hard. Not all adjust to the changes of culture, diet and style of play.
But some do, and excel at their trade. Carlos Bilardo said earlier this year: "Take any team doing well in the Champions League and let me know if there isn't at least one Argentinian in the squad?"
Now there's a challenge for this season.
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