South American Football: The curse of ‘the next Pele’
“I feel like if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.” – Freddy Adu following his debut as a 14-year-old for DC United.
Here in South America the cult of the wonderkid is felt more acutely than anywhere in the world. You can forget about unearthing the “next Pelé” when there are already a string of “new Robinhos” out there plying their trade.
Among the cautionary tales that this obsession of tagging teenagers has produced there are few as turbulent as the case of Reimond Manco.
The Peruvian was hailed as an Inca God following his Player of the Tournament displays at the 2007 under-17 South American championships. A £1.5 million switch to PSV Eindhoven followed and soon enough Manco was turning out against Liverpool in the Champions League.
It wasn’t long before Manco’s attitude started to put noses out of joint at the Dutch outfit. The Peruvian was first loaned to Willem II and after failing to make an impact there he was eventually shipped back home.
Manco then appeared to be buckling down with Juan Aurich and found himself invited back into the national team by new boss Sergio Markarián. However, a curfew-breaking trip to a casino in Panama City saw Manco turfed out by Markarián quicker than you can say Machu Picchu.
With Manco failing to feel the love in Peru he ended up signing for Mexican side Atlante. Manco’s stay in Mexico was typically short-lived and ended after he tried to dodge a training session by faking his own kidnapping.
With just five goals to his name in a professional career that once glittered like Cusco Gold, the prodigal son of Peruvian football celebrated his 21st birthday last week. Manco gave serious thought to hanging up his boots before rejoining Juan Aurich this month where he hopes to get yet another chance to resurrect his fledgling career.
Following the ups and downs in Manco’s life, fans of Peruvian football are doing their best to keep a lid on the expectations surrounding 16-year-old Andy Polo of Universitario. Despite everyone’s best efforts it has not stopped the Arsenal transfer target being dubbed The Jewel amongst the clamour for Markarián to call him up to the senior squad
One of the more bizarre starlet stories to come out of South America in recent years took place in the Bolivian top flight. Julio César Baldivieso, part of the Bolivian squad at the 1994 World Cup, put his son on the substitutes bench while in charge of Aurora two years ago.
Late on in the second half Julio César sent on Mauricio to make his professional debut at the tender age of 12-years-old. Needless to say young Mauricio was mercilessly hacked away at and although he did manage to finish the game his appearance cost his father his job.
Down in Argentina the highest profile debut in the past decade belongs to Kun Agüero who was just one month and three days past his 15th birthday when Oscar Ruggeri brought him on for Independiente. Once on the pitch Agüero immediately started demanding the ball from his team-mates as he played with a swagger that defied his infancy.
The next day’s headlines were dominated by the fact that Agüero had beaten the record for a youthful debut that had previously been held by Diego Maradona. As if to hammer home the point, Agüero would go onto make Maradona a grandfather.
Long before Maradona was bouncing grandchildren on his knee he himself was making the first inroads on a career that makes Manco look like a model professional. Something which is overlooked even here in Argentina is the five seasons Maradona spent at Argentinos Juniors before moving to Boca Juniors, let alone Barcelona. It’s unthinkable that a player of Maradona’s ability in this day and age would get to play even a single game let alone six seasons in Argentina before making a move to Europe.
Lionel Messi is yet to play a match for an Argentinian club and it’s highly unlikely that he ever will. However, what Messi has done is prove that with the right mentality you can move thousands of miles away from home as a 14-year-old and still realize your full potential.
Sebastian Coates stands of the verge of move to Liverpool from Nacional, the club he joined as an 11-year-old. After starring in the youth ranks of club and country Coates broke into the Nacional first team at 18-years-old. A few seasons later he was helping Uruguay to win their 15th Copa America title. As a result of Coates’ steady schooling the Premier League will soon welcome a centre-back ready to hit the ground running.
In Brazil it seems implausible that Santos have been able to fend off Chelsea and Real Madrid’s advances for Neymar. Yet with the Brazilian economy on the rise and a creative president in Luis Álvaro it appears Santos will be able to hold onto their leading luminary until the end of the year at least. A great move not just for the club but also for the player’s development and also for spectators of the Campeonato Brasileiro.
It’s not just economics that puts Brazil ahead of the rest of the continent when it comes to protecting young talent. As Chelsea found out when they snapped up Lucas Piazón from São Paulo, it’s now impossible to bring a player out of Brazil until he has turned 18-years-old.
A fine example of how to nurture a South American wonderkid recently pocketed a bumper payday for Udinese. The Serie A side snapped up 17-year-old Alexis Sánchez from Chilean team Cobreloa back in 2006. Instead of bringing Sánchez over to Italy immediately, Udinese loaned him first to Colo-Colo and then River Plate. These two seasons allowed Sánchez to develop his game whilst losing none of the flair that had attracted Udinese to him in the first place.
When Sánchez eventually arrived it Italy he was able to give Udinese three seasons of superb service before netting them well over £20 million when he moved to Barcelona.
It seems that while expectation alone is not enough to hinder a starlet from becoming a superstar, there are certain steps clubs can take to protect their investment. Above everything any 16-year-old, despite how good they are with the ball at their feet, is still just a 16-year-old. Mass adulation and a bulging wallet are going to weigh heavy on any kid that age.
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