x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Argentine clubs unable to stop the bleeding

Last year, 2,204 players were sold or transferred abroad, topping Brazil's 1,674. The reason is simple - it is the only way local teams can sustain themselves financially.

ADVANCE FOR SATURDAY JAN. 1, 2011 - In this photo taken Dec. 13, 2010, Velez Sarsfield's youth soccer players train in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Argentina exports more soccer players than any country in the world _ making stars, breaking careers but always moving millions of dollars for agents and the country's indebted clubs. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
ADVANCE FOR SATURDAY JAN. 1, 2011 - In this photo taken Dec. 13, 2010, Velez Sarsfield's youth soccer players train in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Argentina exports more soccer players than any country in the world _ making stars, breaking careers but always moving millions of dollars for agents and the country's indebted clubs. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

The people of Argentina are proud their players are can be found around the world, in big football countries such as Spain and England, and in small outposts like Albania and Vietnam.

Young players can dream of playing at Wembley Stadium in London or Camp Nou in Barcelona, and the exodus guarantees that Argentina's top talent is continually tested against the best competition. They are the No 1 exporter of football talent in the world, with more than 2,000 players leaving the country in 2010 to ply their trade elsewhere.

But the nation's local clubs, such as Boca Juniors and River Plate, suffer in their absence.

The teams survive financially by finding talented players and selling their rights at ever younger ages. But the talent drain is hurting the Primera Division. Many stadiums are decrepit and ticket sales are lagging and, some say, it is damaging Argentina's chances of winning a third World Cup.

And for the players, going abroad is not always an easy road to riches.

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Cristian Colusso, like Lionel Messi, grew up in the city of Rosario. He was a promising young forward hoping to strike it rich at a big European club.

Barcelona spotted Messi before he reached his teens and took him to Spain where he became the best player of his generation and seen as the successor to Diego Maradona.

Colusso was sold at 19 to Sevilla in Spain, but his career suffered due to bad luck and corruption.

"As a young man, maybe I was immature and unprepared for the bad things that would happen," said Colusso, now 33 and living back in Argentina. "Before I left I was 100 per cent on top of my game and felt no one could stop me."

Sold in 1997 to Sevilla, Colusso got caught up in a fraud case involving his agent, who reportedly tried to pocket as much as US$1.2 million (Dh4.4m) on the transfer. Eventually he was shipped to Leon, the Mexican club, and barely played for several years.

This was followed by psychological counselling to regain his confidence, and transfers to clubs in Argentina, England, Italy, Ecuador, Venezuela - even trials with two clubs in the United States -and eventually a three-month nightmare with the Algerian club USM Blida.

"I signed the contract in Paris. I can't remember the agent's name, but if I could I would not repeat it out of fear," he said.

"When I arrived in Algeria I was greeted by the head of the police, who was the right-hand man of the club president. They took my passport, and the club put me in a spare room in a store that sold toilet fixtures."

Colusso said his work permit prohibited him from playing for the club because he had not played for Argentina's national team - only the Under 20 team.

"I couldn't play, I didn't have enough to eat and I had to change money on the black market," he said.

"It was all so strange, and when I wanted to leave I couldn't. I had to get my family to talk with the Argentine embassy. I hardly ate and came back having lost six or seven kilos."

Despite his up-and-down career, Colusso managed to save money and lives comfortably with his wife and two young sons in Rosario. He said his starting salary at Sevilla was between $300,000 and $400,000.

"I accomplished a lifelong dream, played in the Argentine first division, and I am proud of my career," he said.

"I did all I could, but everything was not in my hands. I needed to be stronger mentally. I saw places I would never have seen and I live well because of football."

What advice would he give to players and agents?

"I'd suggest players need to go away and play when they are a bit older, and they should be eased into it by clubs and agents who are looking out for them, their interests."

***

Gerardo Molina, the chief executive of Euroamericas Sports Marketing, said a recent study by his company showed Argentina has become the No 1 exporter of football players.

In 2010, 2,204 Argentine players were sold or transferred to clubs abroad, topping Brazil's 1,674.

Molina said selling the rights to Argentine players generated about $500m.

He said 45 per cent of the Argentine players who were sold ended up in all divisions of six European football powers - England, Spain, Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands - with the rest scattered around the globe, from Greece to Indonesia, Finland to Mexico.

"More than from marketing or television, clubs pay off their debts and sustain themselves by selling players," he said.

Argentina surpassed Brazil in exporting players over the past several years, and not necessarily because Argentina has more talent, he said.

"The Argentine clubs are weaker financially than the Brazilians. They [the clubs] don't know how to generate income, so they sell football players," he said.

To help cash-strapped clubs, the Argentine Football Association tore up contracts with its television rights holders in 2009 and transferred the package to state-run television.

The deal was initially valued at $600m, but recent reports suggest it was closer to $1 billion. The move at least doubled the television revenue the clubs received.

The arrangement gave clubs a much-needed income boost and is sure to be a vote winner for Cristina Fernandez, the Argentina President who is expected to seek re-election this year.

But Roberto Goris, an agent who runs Goris Football Management in Buenos Aires, said: "We can see the level of football getting worse in Argentina because even the so-called big clubs can't keep players with offers coming from overseas.

"It's clear the quality of play is dropping because the young players are leaving."

Goris said he had placed players in Indonesia, Haiti and the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean.

"There is always a market for good Argentine players," Goris added. "There are requests from many countries, and not just for first-division players but for second and third division players, too."

***

Powerful European clubs like Barcelona, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Bayern Munich run academies in Argentina, or have agreements with academies and talent scouts.

"Because Europeans are looking here more and more ... we have to sign them at an earlier age," said Sebastian Pait, the coordinator of youth scouting for Argentina first-division club Velez Sarsfield.

The club runs a youth academy and, at almost any time during the year, houses 46 players - typically ages 13 to 18 - in a dormitory located at the club's main stadium complex.

To protect talent from poachers, clubs may sign players to a first contract for about $1,000 a month - big money for many players who grew up in poverty.

Pait said he sees more than 7,000 players a year and some even make it big, like Mauro Zarate. The winger was sold by Velez several years ago to Qatar club Al-Sadd for $22m.

In recent major transfers, Boca Juniors sold Nicolas Gaitan to Portugal's Benfica for $12m, and Ezequiel Munoz to Italy's Palermo for $7m.

Pait circles his blue-painted office deep inside the Velez stadium, pointing to photos of recent Velez youth teams and calling out the nations where players have landed: Mexico, Italy, Albania and Scotland.

"Players can make it without being a Messi," Pait said. "Players who understand they have to work at it, have to study a language, and train seriously each day will wind up playing somewhere without being so outstanding. The market is very large."

So big that the Argentine FA cannot even keep track of all the Argentine players abroad. It has acknowledged, for instance, that it knew nothing about Messi until he surfaced with Barcelona's junior team.

Sergio Batista, the new national team coach has acknowledged the problem and wants to open offices in Spain and Italy to help with the accounting. "There are many kids that we don't even know about who are playing in Europe," Batista said.

The newspaper Clarin said 69 Argentines were member of clubs this season that won league titles, cup titles, and other trophies. The best examples are Esteban Cambiasso, Javier Zanetti, Diego Milito and Walter Samuel who were key members of Inter Milan, who won the league, local cup, European Champions League, the Italian Super Cup and World Club titles.

Others were on winning clubs in more obscure places: Matias Suarez and Luis Biglia led Anderlecht to the 2010 Belgian league title.

In Croatia, Dinamo Zagreb are headed by Luis Ibanez and Romanian club CFR Cluj won the league title with help from Sixto Peralta. Gonzalo Marronkle is a star a Vietnam club T&T Hanoi.

Despite the talent, Argentina have not won a major title since 1993. Their last World Cup title was 1986, and the Gauchos were humiliated in a 4-0 loss to Germany in the quarter-finals of the 2010 tournament in South Africa.

"The reason Argentina have not won is that all the players are abroad and there is no time to train together," said Daniel Hererra, a youth talent scout who attended a recent conference put on by Argentinos Juniors, a club that bills itself as "the seed bed" for developing young talent.

"If all the Argentines and Brazilians playing in Europe were in leagues here, the World Cup every time would only be between Brazil and Argentina. This is guaranteed."