x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Premier League poachers cast their nets wide

Despite all their success and achievements, even Barcelona are powerless to stop rival clubs prizing away young assets.

Barcelona want Cesc Fabregas to return to Camp Nou.
Barcelona want Cesc Fabregas to return to Camp Nou.

A famous institution closed its doors on Tuesday. At La Masia, the farmhouse building next to Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium, they held their traditional end-of-season barbecue for dozens of teenaged boys, an assortment of enthusiastic coaches and suited executives. This year the occasion had more than the usual poignancy and nostalgia. The home of the youth academy of the most successful club currently at work in world football will look very distinct in the future.

People will still refer to "La Masia" when they talk of a place where eager and dedicated would-be Barcelona footballers live, study and practise. But the phrase will be used as a symbol, a metaphor.

The actual building where young dreams are nourished and disciplines instilled is to be a modern, glass-and-steel edifice out in the suburbs, on the campus where Barcelona's senior footballers, the Spanish and European champions, now practise.

The site is state-of-the-art; the old brown-brick Masia is a great deal more homely. But, perhaps, the new version will prove harder to raid.

La Masia produced so many of Barcelona's all-conquering stars that the club would be forgiven for becoming superstitious about a place that inspired the likes of Xavi, Carles Puyol, Victor Valdes, Andres Iniesta, Pedro and Lionel Messi and, a generation earlier, the current Barca coach, Pep Guardiola.

These are men who plainly feel a strong attachment to the club where they grew up and came to believe in a certain way of playing, where they gained their competitive instincts and their professional poise. But, as Guardiola regularly acknowledges, football moves on.

The new Barca academy will have greater capacity, and a more international feel: Leeds United's Elliott Kebbie is the latest overseas youngster to join La Masia. The 16-year-old English winger spent eight years at the Leeds academy, but turned down the offer of a scholarship at the English club last week and moved to Spain with his mother.

Indeed, the younger recent graduates of La Masia are already a more varied crowd, including the likes of Italy-born Thiago Alcantara, whose father played for Brazil; Bojan Krkic, whose father is Serbian; and Jeffren Suarez, born in Venezuela, all of whom are currently with Spain's Under 21s at the European championships.

One or two of that trio may well be sold by Barca this summer. The club would be prepared to transfer them to raise the money they need to offer Arsenal to lure Cesc Fabregas back to the club.

That's the same Fabregas who, a local boy and Barca fan, boarded until the age of 16 at La Masia, benefiting from the club's high-standard apprenticeship. Arsenal recruited him in his early teens and paid Barca a tiny fraction of the €40 million (Dh212m) they have set as the minimum fee to sell him back there.

The irony here is plain. For all the lauding of Barcelona's achievements over the past five or six years, the applauding of their nurtured football, they have found themselves as susceptible as anybody to the poach-and-pay reality of the modern game.

Fabregas was courted by an Arsenal who could exploit loopholes in European employment law in signing him for nothing; the player also appreciated that at Highbury, Arsenal's home then, he had more immediate prospects of first-team football than he would have had at Barcelona in the years immediately after 2003.

Gerard Pique, the defender who skipped out of La Masia to Manchester United a year later, did the same, only to return to Barcelona, where he has thrived, for nearly €6m profit for United, in 2008.

The English Premier League still has a predatory eye for the home-grown talent at other clubs. Jon Miquel Toral and Fran Merida have both moved to Arsenal direct from Barca's youth system following Fabregas's switch.

Meanwhile, United will be watching with a mixture of pride but also regret as they see Barcelona contemplating how many millions above €25m they are prepared to offer Villarreal for Italy's Giuseppe Rossi. He is the striker whom United recruited from Parma when he was 16, much to the annoyance of the Serie A club, who had spotted him playing in the United States, where he was born, and nurtured him.

A few years later, Lazio felt similarly miffed when the teenager Federico Macheda slipped out of their academy, bound for Old Trafford.

A club like Barcelona can survive the leaks of talent and can even learn to turn the La Masia brand name into a premium if they choose to sell, say, any of the five Barcelona footballers in the Spain U21 squad. Clubs such as Lazio and Parma can appeal to European contract law to go some way to protecting their assets and, under Fifa transfer regulations, they will usually receive solidarity payments based on future transfer fees of footballers they have trained during their formative years.

But the further you travel from the moneyed elite, the harder it can become to regulate the poachers. The French clubs Rennes, Le Havre and Lens in the past 18 months have all complained to Fifa about so-called "tapping-up" of teenaged academy players by Manchester City, United and Chelsea, respectively.

The highest-profile case was Chelsea's poaching of Gael Kakuta, the French winger, who joined the London club from Lens at age 16. In 2009, the French team complained about Chelsea's actions to Fifa, resulting in a €780,000 fine and four-month ban for Kakuta, for breach of contract, and a 12-month transfer ban for Chelsea, which was later lifted. Travel outside Europe, and the clubs with the best academies have long been reconciled to a business model that takes for granted that the better the footballer, the younger he will leave.

At ASEC Mimosas of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where players such as City's Yaya and Kolo Toure, Chelsea's Salomon Kalou, Arsenal's Emmanuel Eboue, Sevilla's Didier Zokora and Lille's Gervinho learnt their trade, the president, Roger Ouegnin said: "Supporters sometimes want to lynch me when our best players leave. But you cannot stop a boy wanting to go and earn what seems fantastic money abroad and make a future there. It is a dream for all boys that age."

The difference in West Africa is that if the players make it, ASEC will never have the means to buy them back at their peaks.


Click here for Fabregas comment

Case Study // Michael Woods

Kevin Affleck

Among the 133 players released by Premier League clubs this week was Michael James Woods.

Remember him? No, thought not. Any idea which club he was released by? Tough, isn’t it?

He is the 21-year-old midfielder who now faces the prospect of finding another club after being released by Chelsea.

Who would have thought he would be on the job market when, in 2006, Chelsea risked being taken to court by Leeds United over the alleged tapping up of the then 16 year old and his teammate and friend Tom Taiwo?

Chelsea and Leeds eventually agreed to an out-of-court settlement of £5 million (Dh30m) in compensation for the pair. Five million for two schoolboys? They must have wanted them pretty badly.

Yet the story doing the rounds was that Chelsea were actually after Danny Rose, a Leeds teammate of Woods and Taiwo, and they hoped that by signing Rose’s friends he would also swap Elland Road for Stamford Bridge. Yet Rose chose to join Tottenham Hotspur, leaving Chelsea, according to one of their former coaches, with two players they did not really want. The fact that neither played a single Premier League match at Stamford Bridge would back up this claim.

Taiwo spent a year on loan at Port Vale, had a trial at Seattle Sounders, the Major League Soccer club, and now plies his trade in the third tier of English football with Carlisle United. Woods, meanwhile, was farmed out to Notts County, who also play in the third tier of English football.

For Woods, it is a far cry from when he played in the England side who beat Brazil at the Fifa Under 17 World Cup in 2007. He might be starting to feel he moved to a bigger club too soon in his career.