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The solution to Barcelona's problem is simple: pay young players a decent wage

Barcelona are angry at losing another promising youngster to Arsenal, but the solution to the problem lies within.

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When the Barcelona players and staff travel down the coast of the Mediterranean tomorrow to face Valencia in the Primera Liga, the focus will be on David Villa's return to the Mestalla.

It will be largely symbolic, for the Asturian has retained a strong affinity with Valencia and their fans, just as he has with those at Sporting Gijon, his first professional club.

The striker is unlikely to celebrate if he scores and can also feel content with his first season at Barca. He has already surpassed Zlatan Ibrahimovic's goal total from last season and his signing has already been viewed as a success - even at 40 million (Dh201.5m).

Most of Barca's recent big-money signings have been strikers. The club's famed youth system at La Masia seldom produces a top-class No 9, unlike the surfeit of gifted midfielders from Xavi to Cesc Fabregas.

Fabregas left for Arsenal when he was 16 in a move which outraged the Catalans. They lost Gerard Pique to Manchester United the same summer, though it is Barca rather than United who have ultimately reaped the rewards of his talents since he returned to Spain.

Barca vowed never to lose their finest emerging talents again, but last week Arsenal swooped to take 16-year-old Jon Miquel Toral Harper - the best midfielder of his age group and a Spanish youth international.

They will pay him a reported 300,000 a year - 30 times the standard wage Barca pay their contracted youth players. He will also get free housing, education and flights for his family.

Barca will get compensation, but it is chicken feed compared to the ultimate probable value of the player.

Then again, it is not a guaranteed investment - there is a high failure rate for prodigious 16-year-old prospects. Arsenal also tried to tempt fellow Barca youngsters Sergi Samper and goalkeeper Pol Balleste, though they rejected offers.

Sandro Rosell, the Barca president, is fuming. "Arsenal don't act illegally but we've told them we think they act immorally," he said. "We invest in an academy, they in a few players."

Phrases such as "tapping up" proliferate in the Catalan media with Arsene Wenger portrayed as a thief and child snatcher in cartoon strips, yet Arsenal have acted within the rules.

"We've done what is legal," Wenger said. "I love Barcelona, I love Catalonia. I have nothing against them. When a player who is half-English [Toral's mother is English] and half-Spanish wants to join us, why should we turn him down if it's all legal? If we do something illegal, I will say, 'Sorry, my boy, we cannot do it'. But many players leave us under the same rule."

What makes the transfer more intriguing is Toral is represented by Pere Guardiola, the brother of the Barca coach Pep, with questions raised about conflicts of interest and whether he has Barca's best interests at heart.

Arsenal get the players because they offer two things - money and a more realistic chance of first-team football. Fabregas is the perfect example.

And 300,000 a year to a working-class family who earn less than a tenth of that is a huge incentive. It is a financial guarantee that if their boy gets injured and never kicks another ball from the first day of the contract, there will still be some economic security.

Football is a fickle world where loyalty is a one-way street. Barca are right to be unhappy, but they have left other clubs outraged by taking their finest talents. Football is built on a capitalist system on which Barca thrive.

There is a simple solution. If they want to avoid losing their best talents, then they should pay them more than a relative pittance. Barca have lost top coaches for the same reason, coaches who claim they want a new challenge when in reality all they want is to trade off the Barca name and earn six times what they were on at Camp Nou.

sports@thenational.ae

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