Here’s a question for you: Have we somehow become accomplices to a new kind of individual profiteering? One which is not only accepted but encouraged by the majority of the world’s population? Somehow, history is repeating itself yet many have become blind in noticing such a thing. It takes a deep understanding and critical view to understand that the world’s favourite sport, the one that makes us all suffer and rejoice, is responsible for a sad reality in some countries.
Let’s take a look at the best football leagues in Europe. There are a big number of clubs, like Real Madrid or Juventus, that have academies in African or South American countries. Said academies, in collaboration with some foundations, aim to fight poverty and give education to poor communities. These initiatives are very important for every child’s development, as they improve their chances of succeeding in life. An example of this is the Barça foundation which has 8 headquarters in America, 10 in Asia and 36 in Africa. The programmes help to prevent violence, fight against social exclusion, and improve their access to education.
A Barcelona academy in Nigeria, where kids are trained throughout the week.
As much as this is a noble cause, there is something we need to consider. When these children reach a certain age, they face a harsh reality: either they are good enough to be recruited to play football professionally, or they are left having to find another way to make a living. So, if their football career doesn’t goes as planned, young dreamers are left behind.
For the few that make it to the big leagues, the future is rather promising, as they get a very good salary and often return to help their families financially. But those who aren’t lucky enough will probably struggle to survive, since gaining a higher-level education, or even finishing basic schooling, is merely impossible in some cases. Here is where we must ask ourselves, why are these programs only changing the lives of a few gifted and hard-working children? Why not help the unsuccessful group of kids to continue their education in some way? Do these programs only have the intention of recruiting future possible stars merely so they can gain profit from it?
Corporate Social Responsibility: Football Clubs are intelligent
Before answering all these questions, a key starting point needs to be analyzed: corruption. The variables that correlate all the countries with football programs, and that depict the reasons why those were the chosen locations, are poverty and corruption. These countries don’t experience significant progress in their health or education policies because the money that is destined to these causes is often taken by politicians. This isn’t breaking news, and football clubs know what is going on, so their academies are limited to recruiting the next generation of football players and giving them the hope of a better future.
Oluesgun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria, stoled in 8 years(1999-2007) the incredible amount of 25 billion dollars, according to 360Nobs.
Football clubs use something known as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). According to the Financial Times, CSR is: “the business approach that contributes to sustainable development by delivering economic, social and environmental benefits for all stakeholders.” In simple words: actions of an enterprise for improving its image and the general conditions of the people related to the company. Now, people in general tend to “accept” that more companies employ this kind of labour, which leaves them better positioned against competition.
Naturally, there are different degrees and types of CSR. When applied to a football-related context, you might be presented the following case where you have two options: Firstly, you install your foundation in Luxembourg to help kids affected by inequality or secondly, locate it Nairobi to mediate the decreasing level in the enrollment of high school students. As we said before, football clubs are intelligent and pick the second option.
Now let’s show this in numbers. According to the Transparency International Organization, in 2016, 176 countries were ranked in showing the 10 most corrupt countries: 7 were from Africa, 2 from Asia and 1 from America (sadly, these countries were also some of the poorest ones). As you can see, corruption is a variable that follows a strong geographical pattern, which ‘coincidentally’ matches the countries where big clubs set their academies. If your country is sinking because of some corrupt leaders, wouldn’t your will to escape that reality become that much greater?
There are no statistics needed for answering the following question, just some general intuition -3 out of the 5 best players of 2017, according to FIFA, are from South America. They have confessed to suffering in the past, as their families weren’t wealthy enough to support them in some situations. If these players had the chance to go back to the impoverished childhood they may have faced, inspired by the ambition of improving their situation while doing something they loved? The answer is yes, they were hungry for success. If you don’t believe us just look at Lionel Messi, a man currently considered to be a major idol in the football world.
As a child Messi had to deal with GHD (Growth Hormone Disorder), something which required treatment should he wish to play football professionally. However, he and his family were struggling financially and couldn’t afford his hormone treatment. After some trials, Newell’s Old Boys and River Plate decided not to pay his medications despite the talent he showed, as Bleach Report confirms. Messi needed this, not just for playing football but for his everyday health condition. Then, after weeks of waiting, Barcelona C.F. appeared to be the only saviour. The Catalan team decided to pay for his treatment as an investment which, nowadays, can be categorized by the majority as an “acceptable” investment. Sarcasm aside, Messi went on to become an all-time great player and reinvented such investments for football, more specifically Barcelona.
Messi while training at La Masia some years after his arrival.
This is backed up by former Arsenal F.C. scout Damien Comolli, who compared lifestyles between kids and teens from Europe and America: “Most have a comfortable life and environment and those two things fail to produce players who need to fight every day on the field,” he said when asked about kids in Europe. He then added, when asked about the kids from the latter region: “If you look at attacking players at the top 20 or 30 teams across Europe, many are from South America. From a mental aspect, they have a greater drive.”
Now, the fact that Comolli, a scouter for one of the biggest clubs in England, said in an interview that kids with a more difficult background show a stronger attitude in the field, reinforces the idea that there might be a second intention behind all these football academies other than the moral intention of helping communities in need.
In addition, the graph below, made by BBC, shows a percentage of the kids that give up football at an earlier age in European academies. By looking at it there is an average of 76% of children that drop out between under 13 and under 16. This can also be related to what Comolli said about European kids having a better quality of life and a more promising future, because perhaps some of the kids like playing football but would rather pursue a more stable profession when they grow up. The difference here is found on the possibility of deciding, not like children from developing countries where in most cases have almost no chance of getting to university.
Figure illustrating the desertion of young football players.
To show a different perspective of the situation, let’s see how these academies work once the kids make it to the club’s headquarters and train to actually get a spot into the first team. According to Howard Wilkinson, once responsible for the creation and development of the English youth development programme for modern football, the clubs are failing in their moral responsibility towards the kids. To justify his point of view, according to a study in 2012, it was found that 99% of kids aged 16-18 did not manage to reach a professional team due to lack of support from their academies. Wilkinson suggests this situation also affects the young players mentally, as they find their dreams unfulfilled at a very early age.
Let’s not forget about the majority
In the end, the biggest clubs in the world see these programs as something golden. Out of all the children that enter these programmes, very few go on to become professionals, so the key here is variety and quantity: So long as they have kids coming from all over the world competing for such an opportunity, their chances of finding the next Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo grows evermore. Yes, we can be skeptical over the likelihood of finding such football-prodigies, but in the end the ones that really suffer are the young athletes that don’t make it. Yet, it is the general image towards disadvantaged communities which these companies and programmes sympathetically aim to provide for, which greatly boosts societies perception of them being endorsed.
Alfredo Di Stefano Academy set on Argentina to help kids with low resources. Despite being on an economically advanced country, inequality is a great issue in Argentina.
To sum up, it is important to acknowledge the dark side of football scouting, as not everyone can become a big star and is forced to face a much harsher reality. The business formed around the acquisition of players might seem more important than the wellbeing of the individuals, under a pessimistic point of view. The truth is we are witnessing a paradoxical situation, where the selection process goes unnoticed behind the good intentions of the clubs’ academies and foundations. The help they have provided to people around the world is immense but the issue here is that we are forgetting about the many children, some who may come from very underprivileged backgrounds and inevitably won’t have the opportunity to progress further; thus, returning back to their families having their dreams crushed.