The footballing world today is not short of wonderkids. In various leagues, we see promising young professional footballers putting in excellent performances with such consistency that you think they are bound to become world-class players. Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney, and Sergio Aguero come to mind when you think of wonderkids who have lived up to the hype.
While every transfer has an element of risk involved, clubs buying wonderkids is a definite gamble. Teams are spending massive amounts of money, not on the current ability of these hot prospects but their potential calibre. Huge transfer fees put enormous pressure on these young players, often teenagers, who are expected to not only continue their fine form but also develop into iconic first-team players. But for every wonderkid who achieves their potential, we have countless others who fail to do so. Many of these players peak in their youth and either fall into mediocrity or fade away entirely. Alexander Pato, Ravel Morrison, and Freddy Adu are just some of the many notable wonderkid casualties.
The practice is not new. For some time now, many top clubs around the world have focused on scouting the next superstar in Association Football. However, amidst the backdrop of hyper-inflated transfer fees, one can’t help notice an increasing trend of clubs preferring to buy young, unpolished gems at comparatively lower prices as opposed to breaking the bank for a proven professional. Even though Erling Håland cost a hefty €20 million, Borrusia Dortmund would have potentially paid approximately thrice that amount for an experienced forward like Alvaro Morata (who was bought for €56 million by Athletico Madrid).
Some top clubs are primarily focusing their transfer policy on signing ones for the future. Real Madrid’s recent acquisition of Reinier is yet another example of their new transfer policy since Zidane’s return – signing young talented, but mostly unproven, footballers. Real have stuck to this policy after the successes of Federico Valverde (bought from Peñarol in 2017), Vinícius Junior (bought from Flamengo in 2018), and Rodrygo (bought from Santos in 2019). 18 seems to be Real’s lucky number with all these players, including Reinier Jesus, being 18 years old when they joined Real.
However, big-money moves to top clubs as a teenager could potentially stall one’s development. Let’s take the case of Reinier. I cannot deny that the Brazilian is an exceptional talent. In his breakout season for Flamengo, he netted six goals and provided two assists in 14 games. That is an impressive record for any 18 years old in their debut Campeonato Série A season. However, he would not be getting any first-team action at the Bernabéu anytime soon. Instead, he would be turning out for Real Madrid academy team who play in the third division of the Spanish football league system, Segunda División B.
It is a definite step down for a player who was featured pretty prominently for Flamengo. Reinier could have potentially honed his skills further in the Brazilian top flight and would have perhaps slotted straight into the Real Madrid first team had he waited 4 to 5 years. However, his market value would most definitely skyrocket, and Real would need to fork out more on his transfer. If anything, I sincerely hope that Reinier blossoms in Real Madrid Castilla and he realizes his potential just like Valverde, Vinícius, and Rodrygo have done before him. The reality of Reinier failing to make his mark is a stark one. One has to look at Martin Ødegaard’s misfortunes during his time in Madrid. Even though he has found a resurgence of form at Real Sociedad, it is nowhere near the expected potential from such a promising player. His time at Madrid cost him dearly, and he arguably would have been better off honing his craft in his native Norway where he would have received more playing time.
While not official like Reinier’s transfer, Manchester United have been heavily linked with Jude Bellingham. In fact, a reported 25 million pound transfer has been agreed by both clubs. If the rumours are true, Manchester United are gambling on the England under-18 Captain. Like Reinier, Bellingham has been stellar in his breakout season. In 26 matches for Birmingham City, the midfielder has netted four goals and one assist for the club. Not bad for a 16-year-old.
However, his performances do not warrant the supposed £25 million transfer fee in the slightest. Bellingham has just started on his journey as a first-team regular for Birmingham. If he were to move to United this transfer window, he would surely find himself in the reserves, and at most make sporadic appearances for the first-team squad.
Also, who are United kidding? Jude Bellingham would most likely end up as another Nick Powell or Ravel Morrison were he to join the team. Mason Greenwood, Brandon Williams, and James Garner are anomalies to the norm. The quality of our youth academy is below par, and we lag behind many Premier League clubs when it comes to developing young footballers. Unlike most Premier League clubs who play in the first division, United’s U-23 side are playing in the second division of the development league. Even though they have been brilliant this season and find themselves in a playoff spot, much improvement is needed for United to re-establish their reputable youth set up under Sir Alex.
I could go on with other examples of clubs investing in the potential in youth players, but that would not address the greater issue at hand (or at least what I perceive to be the bigger issue) – how hyper-inflated transfer fees have destroyed the transfer system. Many often point their fingers at the Premier League for today’s ridiculous transfer fees. However, I would argue it was Neymar’s €222 million transfer from Barcelona to PSG that caused transfer fees to soar beyond control. Therefore, clubs would instead invest in youth and profit down the road, given the continued upward trajectory transfer fees seem to be taking.
Buying young players as an economic strategy to pay less in transfers only pays dividends if you have a great youth development system. The problem is, many clubs do not. Lyon, Ajax, Borrusia Dortmund are ideal models for teams to follow. These clubs splash the cash when necessary to bring in promising young talent but also focus on nurturing these players to build a team for the future. Instead of poaching on young talent in the hope they bloom into icons, clubs need both good youth coaches and facilities. Sadly, many top sides have inadequate youth systems.