Real Madrid signed a seven-year-old! AP sent it over the wires. Dozens if not hundreds of North American publications exploited it for instant pageviews. The story led to predictable, ignorant and pathetic OUTRAGE, when it was a nontroversy of the highest order. Had anyone put forth a modicum of research or even a fleeting moment of rational thought that would have been evident.
Spain is a civilized country. The European Union has child labor laws. FIFA, UEFA and La Liga have rules to prevent the exploitation of children. Real Madrid did not sign Argentine seven-year-old Leonel Angel Coira to a professional contract. La Liga clubs cannot sign a player to a professional contract until age 18. That’s how Barcelona youth products Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique ended up at Arsenal and Manchester United (English clubs can sign and negotiate with players earlier).
A contract would imply Leo was (a) employed and (b) tangibly bound to Real Madrid. He’s neither. He “signed” an agreement to attend their youth academy. He will go to school. He will also receive topflight training from Real Madrid’s youth coaches and play for their youngest team, the “Benjamin” squad, which is mostly U-9 players. The fact Real Madrid has a designated team for U-9 players should have tipped off everyone this was not as newsworthy or shocking as advertised. The difference is he’s Argentine, he’s believed to be a potential prodigy and Real Madrid found his father a job so he could move.
The off-cited comparison is Messi coming to Spain as a 13-year-old, when Barcelona agreed to pay for his growth hormone treatments. Messi had been playing for an Argentine club for years before that. Most Spanish players start at clubs around age 10.
This isn’t child labor. Kids don’t carry punch cards. It’s a youth soccer system. It’s like a travel soccer club in the United States, just well-organized and funded by the professional clubs with elite-level coaching instead of some enterprising father. The kids are “paid” a small stipend to help their parents pay for any ancillary expenses (instead of pricing out poor kids).
Spain’s clubs play an active role in youth development. Real Madrid teaches the kids, establishes a relationship with them and, if they are good enough, signs them to a professional contract. Other clubs scour Real Madrid’s youth system for kids who could play for lower-level teams. Some go on to other professions.
The result of this system is really, ridiculously good soccer players. It’s not a coincidence Spain wins World Cups and European Championships and Barcelona wins Champions Leagues with a largely homegrown team. Germany made major reforms to their youth coaching from age 6-12 in the late 1990s. It’s no fluke they now have a stream of talented guys in the early 20’s flooding into the Bundesliga and national team.
In an ideal world, this is the system Juergen Klinsmann would try to implement in the United States. Get MLS and U.S. Soccer to take a more proactive role in cultivating talent. Instead he must find a compromise with our tradition of amateurism and school-based athletics. Before you get on your high-horse about the virtues of that, consider what happens to elite high school basketball players.
The initial story about Real Madrid’s “signing” was sensational and stupid. The overreaction was unfit for publication in any forum. There was a clear way to make this story informative and relevant to an American audience. Unfortunately, no one, even the well-recompensed L.A. Times columnist, was willing to devote his or her whole ass.
[Photo via Getty]