Football & Youth – Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children?

by | Jan 22, 2016

On Christmas morning, one of the packages opened on behalf of my then three month old son was a set of Tottenham Hotspur branded apparel. It was a welcome gift. My brother-in-law and two nieces are dyed in the wool Chelsea supporters, and the idea of them sinking their teeth into him in this respect might have been somewhat difficult to deal with. As it is, little Dylan Edward will grow up with the psychologically damaging albatross hanging around his neck of supporting the same football team as his father and grandfather, and any deviation from this pre-ordained path will be treated as the act of treachery that it undoubtedly will be. An altogether more satisfactory state of affairs, I think we can all agree.

All jesting aside, however, that a three month old child should be crowbarred into the colours of a Premier League football club – and crowbarred he will need to be soon, considering his current rate of growth – speaks volumes about the significance that we place upon the game in the twenty-first century. Which football club a child should support has long been considered a crucial part of their identity, and the age at which we expect this interest to blossom has shrunk and shrunk over the last few decades. We might consider ourselves to be thoroughly modern parents who allow our children the freedom to make their own decisions, but when push comes to shove even the most liberal of parents will most likely impress their will upon the malleable mind of an infant on this particular subject if given the opportunity. I should know. I’m doing exactly this right now.

Supporting a football club is one thing, though. Actually playing it is something different altogether. The idle dream of becoming a professional footballer is a fairly standard rite of passage, and has been since long before the concept of making oneself richer that Croesus in the process of doing so. We can go back decades and decades, to eras when the very notion of “glamour” in professional football was treated with disdain and the players themselves were treated like little more than chattels by clubs, to see this. We never needed the carrot and stick of a Baby Bentley and a house worth millions of pounds to seduce us to want to become professional footballers.

Separating the wheat from the chaff

The globalisation of professional football, however, has added untold wealth and celebrity status to the list of reasons why a child might wish to make this his chosen vocation and in addition to this, the already vanishingly small likelihood of this ever happening to any particular child has been further dissipated by the very globalisation that has brought so much money into the game in the first place. A ten year old English boy hoping to make it as a top professional football club in his home country doesn’t just face competition from others locally, but from a planet brimming with boys with very much the same ambition. Coupled with this, a rapacious global scouting industry has sprung up which ensures that there is always plenty of competition from abroad.

If there’s one thing that competition is very good at, it’s breeding bad behaviour and recent stories which have started to emerge on the treatment of young players may now be starting to make us all ask very serious questions regarding what is happening to aspiring young footballers in the name of our sport. It’s difficult to avoid the feeling that the systems in place which bring young footballers into the game most closely resemble an unseemly combination of factory farming, a modern slave trade and trepanning for gold. And with only an infinitesimally small proportion of those who get involved in the game making it anywhere near the rewards that are plastered everywhere for all to see, what, exactly, happens to the chaff after the wheat is plucked from it?

History may, according to the popular phrase, be written by the winners, but it also has a tendency to be written about them, as well, and let there be no mistaking the fact that, for all the criticism that professional footballers come in for over their performances on the pitch as well as a myriad of other things, they have already won one of life’s most challenging lotteries merely by getting a professional contract in the first place. It can be difficult to believe at times, particularly when so much vitriol is thrown in their direction, but those who are even on the pitch in the first place are sport’s equivalent to the one per cent. They are the tiny minority who got that far in the first place. So it is worth pausing from the breathless hype machine that the modern game has become and ask ourselves the question of what happens to the other ninety-nine per cent, even if the answers may make us wince a little.

The Commoditisation of Youth

The reason why questions have started to be asked about all of this is most likely related to the recent two window transfer embargoes laid at the door of Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid over violating “several provisions concerning the international transfer and first registration of minor players” during a nine-year period between 2005 and 2014 concerning thirty-nine players.” These are breaches of Article 19 of Section VI of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status & Transfer of Players, and it’s not considered likely that either club will be successful with the appeals that they are understood to be planning. It speaks volumes for the nature of how clubs view young players that, rather than accepting their punishment and acknowledging that they were in breach of rules put in place to prevent the exploitation of young people, most of subsequent talk has been on the subject of how affronted they are at getting caught and not being able to throw still more money away on transfer fees, rather than acknowledging that being caught systematically flouting laws that are in place to prevent the exploitation of minors is behaviour of which any football club should be heartily ashamed.

The easy and expedient thing to do is to hang Real and Atletico out to dry, cast them as bad apples in am ocean of otherwise spotlessness, and get on with the rest of our lives, of course. Unease at the commoditisation of children, however, should run much more deeply than that. It’s ingrained into the culture of the game to the extent that, although the concept of clubs rejecting players before they’ve reached their teenage years should seem ridiculous to us, we simply accept it as part and parcel of the game. We accept that young players who display any talent whatsoever will be removed from their friends and into an academy at which the chances of any one player succeeding are tiny, and that those children will most likely be spat back out by the system when they’ve served – or, more likely, failed to serve – their purpose. We accept that it’s “dog eat dog”, that “only a few can succeed”, and we seem to tolerate behaviour from clubs that would be deemed appalling were it in any industry that didn’t ultimately offer the slim possibility of kicking a ball around in front of thousands of people at the end of it.

Furthermore, recent changes to academy regulations in England have allowed the biggest clubs to go on trawling expeditions to hoover up more players than they could ever have any use for, before sending the majority of them out on loan. The Elite Player Performance Plan’s introduction was effectively an act of blackmail on the part of the Premier League, who threatened to remove all youth development funding if the Football League did not accept the new deal.  It might be argued that there is little point in smaller clubs running academies any more, as bigger clubs can step in – as has happened on more occasions than is ever reported in the media – and take them away for desultory fixed fees. It’s difficult to feel too sympathetic for even the smaller clubs, though. They’re as involved in this factory farming as the biggest clubs and the majority of complaints tend to revolve around compensation levels and concentrations of power rather than treating human beings as little more than livestock.

Warning: parental guidance

If the clubs cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of the children that they are supposed to be responsible for, then presumably the parents should be doing so, right? Well, even that’s debatable. The over-competitive father (or mother), standing on the touchline shouting him or herself hoarse with incomprehensible instructions parroted from watching too many episodes of Match of the Day without ever fully understanding what they might mean has become something of a comedy trope, and many of those who work at the grassroots end of the youth football scale have their own horror stories of those old enough to know better, but who still live variously through their own children’s abilities, or lack thereof.

It may or may not be true to say that there are a lot of parents for whom even the faintest whisper of the interest of a professional football club will have an effect similar to that which a full moon has on a werewolf. Indeed, a lot of anecdotal evidence seems to point towards parents taking their children’s Saturday or Sunday morning football matches way more seriously than the children themselves ever would. It would be unfair to say that pushy parents are by definition bad parents, but there certainly seems to be a corrosive effect that the possibility of a multi-million pound career can have upon anybody who comes within so much as sniffing distance of it. With regards to young players, up to and including the prepubescents packed off to academies by promises of riches that they’ll be unlikely to ever see, it is the parents who have the ultimate veto. Clubs can’t do shit unless the parents are persuaded to sign that waiver. And whilst it might be overly dogmatic of a parent to say, “No, little Jimmy will not join your academy until he has completed his GCSEs and A Levels,” the parent of any young player who genuinely is as outstanding as all that should understand that they do have leverage that they can use in order to secure a few more options for little Jimmy in the event that he doesn’t turn out to be the new Lionel Messi, after all.

We need a sea change in attitudes on this matter. We need an end to the deification of money and power within professional football and shift in our apparently collective viewpoint that it is fair and reasonable for clubs of any size to treat children in the way that they often seem to. When considering the involvement of young people in the game, our first thought should always be of their enjoyment of the game, and we should do what we can to rid the game of this culture within which, somehow or other, very young players can find their hopes built up and dashed or find themselves thrown on the scrapheap before they’ve even hit puberty. This isn’t a matter of club versus club, of oneupmanship of any sort. It’s a matter of something approaching moral imperative. It should make us feel uncomfortable, because only through this feeling of discomfort might we reach a tipping point at which we start to demand change.

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