By Max Mauro
A few months ago, I was sitting in a hotel room in Spain, and I did what many travellers would do after having familiarised themselves with their room. I switched on the TV to see what national and regional channels had to offer. Understandably, there were a number of international programmes in English, but I wished to capture something of the place, the country. Two channels immediately caught my attention: Barça TV and Real Madrid TV. These days all big football clubs have their own ‘channels’, so it was not surprising that two of the most celebrated clubs in the world (Barcelona and Real Madrid) were available for me to watch. What surprised me is that they were both showing children games. The players were dressed in the famous colours usually wore by the stars of the game, but they were barely nine or ten-year old. As it normally happens at this age, they played on smaller pitches, with slightly smaller goalposts, but they had referees dressed like referees (in real life a dad/mum or a coach would referee their games) and, more importantly, there was a commentator helping the viewer make sense of this experience.
And an experience it was, at least for me. As a media scholar, I could understand the need to fill the programming by the editors of these channels, and with an effort of critical imagination I could grasp the obsession of fans for all things related to these clubs, which are true global brands. But still, children games?
In fact, the continuous growth of sport as a component of the media and leisure industries, pushes the stakeholders (clubs, sporting bodies, sponsors, broadcasters) toward new ‘markets’. As it happens in any capitalist field, there are no limits of expansion as long as there are consumers seeking to fulfil desires, even desires they may not have thought possible they could have before someone showed them they existed.
Youth sport is the last frontier of the global expansion of what once was called the ‘beautiful game’. For many children is not a game, anymore. Take international youth competitions, for example. In 1948, FIFA launched the idea of an international tournament to bring together youth of different countries in the face of the looming Cold War. In the vision on Jules Rimet, long-term chief of FIFA, sport ‘is destined … to establish peace’. Starting from the 1970s, however, with the rise of the more business-oriented (and arguably less idealistic) Joao Havelange, this tournament developed into something else. In 1976, Coca Cola joined hands with FIFA and the FIFA/Coca Cola Youth World Championship was born. It was a biennial event, more competitive and publicised that the earlier tournament, but still it was not much more than an opportunity for teenagers to have a holiday abroad playing the game they loved. In those days, football clubs would not go beyond their regional or national boundaries to scout young talents.
Things have changed a great deal in this regard. Today, the ‘world market’ for young talents is populated by thousands of official and unofficial agents. Youth academies operate in poorer countries to recruit the best (and hungrier, in sporting terms) talents from the age of eight or even younger and try to ‘sell’ them to the big clubs. The wealthiest and more powerful clubs, essentially Europeans, would take every licit (and not so licit) route to get the ‘rough diamonds’ before their competitors. FIFA regulations prohibit the international transfer of players before the age of 18, but over the last few years both Real Madrid and Barcelona, alongside Atletico Madrid and more recently Chelsea, have been sanctioned for having done exactly the opposite. They have enrolled in their youth academies children aged 12 or 13 who were originally from other countries: Japan, Cameroon, Venezuela, USA and more.
While all this is happening, the sporting bodies are not sitting at the window. In 2013, UEFA (the European football governing body) launched their European Youth League, in which the Under 19 teams of clubs participating in the Champions League compete against each other. At the moment, the UEFA Youth League is a trade mark, and it is broadcast in 63 countries. 25 broadcasters are paying UEFA for the rights to show this youth competition. UEFA also organises an annual Under 17 European Championship for national teams, and a biennial Under 21 European Championship. Since 2012, Under 16 boys and girls take part in ‘development tournaments’, which, in the words of UEFA, ‘are designed to prepare the way for players to move into the U17 age group, where European competition begins in earnest’. In the meantime, FIFA (the world football governing body) are in charge of biennial Under 17 World Cups for both women and men, with the support of commercial partners such as Gazprom, Qatar Airwaves, Adidas, and Visa. They also organise a biennial Under 20 World Cup, only for men. Long gone are the days of Rimet and Stanley Rous, the president of FIFA between 1961 and 1974, who believed that ‘nationalism and commercialisation’ were real ‘menaces to sport’.
Things are getting more competitive also at country level, and, quite worryingly, lowering the age of ‘professionalism’. In 2019, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) announced that after having recently launched national Under 17 and Under 15 leagues, they were going to start an Under 13 national league. The Republic of Ireland is not a big country but still there will be 12/13-year-olds travelling weekly across the country to play matches (without considering having to train multiple times per week). In Italy, the Under 15 national league is already making headlines. The recent victory of AS Roma against AC Milan for the Under 15 national title was covered by a number of media outlets, including the leading national press agency ANSA.
Sitting back in my hotel room, I held my breath and wondered what would be the next step in the evolution of the spectacle of sport. After having turned children into adults, maybe adults will be turned back into children and finally be allowed to enjoy the game like real children used to do. But by that time, who knows, they may have forgotten how to enjoy playing.