Brazil’s Lincoln, 16, has been so good that Barcelona and Real Madrid are reportedly scrambling to sign him. French striker Lenny Pintor’s stunning goal last week against Spain triggered the interest of Manchester City and Chelsea. Mexican forward Diego Lainez’s parents have been negotiating on his behalf with European clubs.
FIFA describes the Under-17 World Cup, which is currently in its final stages across India, as a developmental tournament. But the event is also a chance for big football clubs to snap up exciting young talent at throwaway prices instead of splurging millions once they hit the headlines.
Almost all top European clubs have their scouts closely tracking every match in India in search of the next Ronaldinho, Xavi Hernandez or Francesco Totti that the Under-17 World Cup occasionally throws up.Talent-hunters from Manchester United and Manchester City were spotted in Delhi while Barcelona dispatched their scouts to monitor some young Spanish prospects. Arsenal, Paris St-Germain, AC Milan, Valencia and Galatasaray are some of the other clubs who have sent their representatives to India.
These scouts are present at every match but apart from FIFA, which reserves seats for them, few know who they represent or where they sit in a stadium. Their work is shrouded in secrecy. Most are not willing to talk while some do not even acknowledge their presence.
“As you can imagine, our scouts attend various competitions and events around the world as part of their scouting work. However, we don’t publicise it given the nature of their work and looking to scout talent,” said an Arsenal spokesperson.
But their presence is also the World Cup’s worst kept secret. “You are aware of it, there is no denying that. The players who play in Mexico and Europe, they already know that every time they step on the field there’s going to be 50 scouts,” said former US and Blackburn Rovers goalkeeper Brad Friedel, who is here as an observer with the American team.
The process is straightforward — the scouts mainly look at a player’s ability and attitude. “At this age, the players are not developed physically, tactically or technically. But there is an intuition that they have talent and potential that can be exploited in later years,” said Alejandro Perez, a scout with Spanish club Sevilla who was in Delhi for all group stage matches.
If a scout likes a player, Perez says, he digs deep into the past, getting information about the player, his agent, family, relatives and the club of origin. “And then I consult with my superiors so that in our team we have a joint opinion about what I have observed,” he said.
This is the first time Sevilla has sent a scout for an under-17 World Cup. Perez monitored the matches of previous editions of the youth tournament via video. However, in a market that is highly inflated, the Spanish side has realised that the best solution is to be present at the ground and poach a player before he is wooed by another club.
“This year, we set ourselves the objective to start a little earlier in recruiting players to play in our academy and that it is not made economically impossible when they are already in the first level,” said Perez, adding that he has bumped into scouts from fellow Spanish clubs Malaga and Villarreal during his India trip.
For the teams, however, all this is a distraction as they chase the crown of being the world’s best youth team. “It’s something that really bothers us, you know. When the players see that the scouts are there, everybody wants to impress. Sometimes even if someone else is in a better position to score, the player will try to score himself because he will be noticed. It’s a big, big problem for us,” said Ghana coach Samuel Fabin.
Rafael Zabarain, a psychologist with the Colombian team, said getting spotted by a club is the only way out of poverty for the players and in that desperation, they often lose focus. “If players have a good World Cup, the scouts will say ‘you, you and you come on’. But the most important task is to keep them away from all that noise. I tell them, ‘if you make sacrifice now, then you will reap benefits later. If you are distracted now, then you will pay for it later.’ Football is a big business and you know that,” said Zabarain.
Since India was awarded the World Cup four years ago, the All India Football Federation has been selling the dream to the Indian players that a good performance can see them being picked by a European scout. There are murmurs of a few European clubs showing slight interest in goalkeeper Dheeraj Moirangthem. But nothing concrete has come out of it yet.
For someone like Brazil’s Lincoln, though, another good performance will attract more suitors.