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Lionel Messi is a great example for all footballers worldwide. His skill, his charisma, the joy that he displays when on the pitch. Then add his story: a little Argentinian boy who was coping with growth problems, moved to Spain at a very young age (13 years)  for medical treatment and - eventually - conquered the entire football world.

 

It is a great feel-good story.

 

But Messi’s fairy-tale-like story is also a threat to many young kids’ futures, says Juan Pablo Meneses. The Chilean journalist recently published his book ‘Niños Futbolistas (Boy Footballers)’ in which he describes the practice of child-footballers in South America being bought and transferred at a very young age. ‘The bad situation in which many young footballers find themselves nowadays was more or less initiated by Messi. His move to Barcelona at such a young age inspired many agents to buy very young players in their search for a new Messi and - most of all - a lot of money.’

 

For over two years, Meneses investigated how young talented football players in South America are treated. He visited nine countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru, to gather as much information as possible on how best to buy a promising young player who could later be sold to a football club in Europe.

 

His book is part of a trilogy called ‘Periodisimo Cash’, in which he wants to show the trading process of different products. For his first book – The Life of a Cow - he bought a cow to describe the process from birth to the moment the cow is served on a plate. For his second book, he bought a promising child footballer…

 

“We know there is beef in the supermarket and Messi on the TV,

but we don’t ask ourselves how they got there” (from Niños futbolistas)

 

‘I was watching the news and noticed that child footballers were being transferred at a very young age’, Meneses explains in an interview with FIFPro. ‘Big teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid were assimilating very young children. To me, that sounded like child labour. I wanted to know more about the business behind the search for big football players.’

 

The results impressed him, Meneses says. ‘It was easier and cheaper to buy a child than I had expected. There were no real obstacles.’ Meneses found out that the rights to a boy under the age of twelve who plays for an amateur club in Latin America cost around two hundred dollars. If the boy is registered with a federated team the price varies between one thousand and six thousand dollars.

 

Most of the boys are bought at around the age of ten. Thousands of agents are willing to buy them, with one main objective: to sell the boys with a big profit to clubs abroad. Once the transfer has been realised, their business is done. When the child doesn’t make it to the professional level, they just leave him behind regardless of his situation. ‘There are many boys who dream of being the next Messi. But the new phenomenon is that there are now many young entrepreneurs who dream of being the one who discovers the next Messi.’

 

FIFA rules and regulations prohibit minor players being transferred abroad. But according to Meneses, most of the agents know how to find the loopholes. ‘Agents I met advised me to buy kids aged 9 to 11 years. I know about many transfers of boys below 12 years old.’

 

 

The boys that finally make it – a very, very low percentage – have to survive numerous obstacles: living far away from their families, with the responsibility of supplying the economic support for their family. ‘They are not children, they are workers’, is Meneses' conclusion.

 

To these kids – from seven years on - football is a job. Meneses is of the opinion that they are no longer kids. ‘They are a product. Once the father of Neymar said the following: “At home, I am the father. But outside, I am the president of Neymar Enterprises”. These children should play the game of football and should not be part of the business of football.’

 

The way today’s generation of young children experience football is totally different from other generations, Meneses noticed. ‘I remember an old black and white video of a very young Diego Maradona playing football  in the streets. When he was asked what he wanted to become, he replied: “I want to be World Champion”.’ Meneses asked the same question to the children he met in the streets. ‘They all want to be a professional footballer for economic reasons. They want to be rich for specific reasons, in order to buy a hair salon for their mother, a car for their father, or a new house for their parents. All the children consider football as a job instead of a game, even when they are little.’ 

 

Meneses describes a bizarre reality. Young and talented football players are trained only to play football. They ‘forget’ about their education. Their parents acquiesce in this, because they see it as their only option to escape poverty. Parents are actually hoping that some agent will come along and buy their child. Meneses cynically: ‘In most of the countries there is no other option. Yes, in Venezuela there is baseball and in Mexico there is boxing, but in all other countries the only other option is to become a narco…’

 

‘The parents do not see the risks. They are just eager for their child to make it as a professional footballer.’

 

"During the very years that Barcelona carried the UNICEF logo on their shirts, they developed an almost perfect structure that organises championships, TV programmes, and everything that can be imagined in order to recruit children that could become stars." (from Niños Futbolistas)

 

‘South American football is now like a factory of footballers for Europe. The quality of the championships on the continent is getting worse and worse. The players are sent away at a younger and younger age, they hardly ever reach the South American leagues.’

 

Nevertheless, it's inappropriate to put the blame exclusively on the parents. ‘Everybody is to blame’, says Meneses. ‘The managers, the public, the media, the clubs. Everybody cries "foul" when a kid is taken to another country. But when that kid scores, everybody – every one of us - cheers…’

 

The phenomenon of child trafficking is not restricted to South America. It is spread all over the world: Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, says Meneses. ‘I am pessimistic about this. It is difficult to change. But that’s not up to me. I am a journalist. The relevant stakeholders should do something about it’.  

 

In August, Meneses’ book was published in Latin America and Spain. Currently he is in talks in order to have the book released in German and Portuguese. He also hopes to publish his book in English.