If ever proof was needed to demonstrate South America’s influence on La Liga, it was their plethora of scouts present at this year’s Under-17 Copa Sudamericana. Those lucky enough to be in attendance would have scribbled down plenty of gifted names, but what really lies behind the identification of talent in this regional hub of youthful promise?
It is worth exploring the case of Brazilian Vinicius Junior, who became the world’s most expensive teenager when agreeing to join Real Madrid earlier this summer. He was first watched by their scouts at the age of 11, and triggered a race for his signature after finishing as top scorer and best player of the aforementioned tournament, this despite only making his senior debut for Flamengo in the same month he was bought.
If people thought £198m for Neymar was extortionate – and this for someone who has won two La Liga titles and the Champions League, as well as being Brazil’s footballing figurehead – then a potential £55m for a 16 year-old with next to no top-flight experience seems like an extraordinary punt, with even Marca, the pro-Madrid daily, commenting that never before has so much been spent on someone so unproven.
The historical cultural and trade links between Spain and South America have extended into football for many years, and mean that the path Vinicius will tread – he will arrive at Madrid in 2019 – is well-worn.
This two-way relationship sees Spanish clubs import talent at lower prices than would be the case domestically, with South American clubs ploughing the money back into their revenue-generating lifeblood, the academies.
Such an established relationship has led to these academies adopting innovative practices to get their prospects ready for life in Spain or elsewhere in Europe. Vinicius himself benefited from Flamengo’s “Pratas do Ninho” programme, which according to the club’s chief medical officer Marcio Tannure, “seeks to create a structure in which the player can accelerate his strengths and ultimately better integrate into the professional game.”
Time will tell whether a wider proliferation of these programmes will result in young players leaving South America even earlier than we have seen to date, and for even bigger fees in a rapidly inflating market.
What is certain is that the region is not the only one that attracts La Liga’s talent developers. Barcelona last year partnered with ISL Futbol, a consulting company in the US to set up its own, newest FCBEscola academy in Charlotte, North Carolina. Initially involving short-term camps, longer-term programmes are also offered, costing on average approximately £1,500 per player per year but which will imbue each individual with a true Barca experience, a seductive arrangement for kids and parents alike.
La Liga clubs themselves face all sorts of competition too, particularly from English and German clubs using their brand to extend their reach and appeal. There will undoubtedly be continuing innovation in talent identification as these markets become more and more saturated.
Portugal also provides a compelling alternative to La Liga. As well as the language and cultural similarities that appeal to many Brazilians particularly, there is no requirement for non-EU players to obtain a work permit.
The third-party ownership model, discouraged by UEFA but regularly employed by the Portuguese super agent Jorge Mendes, also helps clubs – particularly the behemoths Porto and Benfica – to acquire players relatively cheaply and sell them on at a high profit, with examples being David Luiz, Angel Di Maria and Hulk, among many others.
Looking to the future, it is an unfortunate fact that many South American countries are experiencing problems that could threaten the continuing production of talent. For example Argentina - one of the great exporters - will no longer receive state support for its “Futbol para todos” scheme which helped to swell the coffers of domestic clubs and their academies, due to their own inability to self-govern effectively.
It is to be hoped that La Liga continues to see unique South American talents arrive on its shores, however in a region of such frequent political and economical uncertainty, this cannot be assured.