Platini and the youngsters

It is very hard indeed for UEFA, Platini or no Platini, to stand up to the major clubs of Europe. Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger is already threatening a European Cup boycott if Platini gets his way over the lesser lights, writes Brian Glanville.

It took Michael Platini very little time to come out fighting as the new President of UEFA. His plan for the European Champions Cup — to make room for four teams from lesser countries, plus an entry for winners of their nation’s Cup — received a very dusty answer from the major G14 clubs. There could well be blood when Platini tries to force through the former change; UEFA have insisted that the suggestion is not to be debated.

For my own part, I am sorry Platini, such a splendidly elegant player in his own distinguished day, couldn’t get his own way over reducing the swollen number of teams eligible to compete in the European Cup from the leading nations. Platini wanted rationally and moderately enough to reduce the number from four to three which provoked the inevitable outcry from the G14s of this football world. My own preference would be to go back to the far more balanced and rational days when the entrants were just one a country plus if necessary the previous winners of the trophy. As things stand, a once fine competition, the European Cupwinners’ Cup, has ceased to exist while in the UEFA Cup we now have the idiocy of allowing teams knocked out of the European Cup to compete; and in some cases provide both finalists. By the same dire token, we have had the final of the European so-called Champions (an affront to the Trades Descriptions Act) contesting the final.

It is very hard indeed for UEFA, Platini or no Platini, to stand up to the major clubs of Europe. Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger is already threatening a European Cup boycott if Platini gets his way over the lesser lights. But in another area, Platini seems likely to get his way, however swiftly and unexpectedly. For scarcely had he condemned the way that major clubs and especially Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were poaching teenaged players from abroad than a Spanish court dealt what seems a crushing blow in his favour.

“I do not like the system of Wenger,” declared Platini. “In France, Italy and Spain, it is easy to buy with money the best players at 14, 15 or 16. I don’t like that. If my son is playing at Millwall and at 16 Manchester United come in for this player, when will Millwall have a good team?”

I’m not quite certain why Platini should pick on Millwall or any other domestic English team to prove his point, when surely the problem lies across the Channel in Europe and notably in Spain. But scarcely had Platini voiced such opinions than lo and behold Barcelona, in a Spanish Court, won a 2.1 million dollar claim against a 17-year-old midfield player called Fran Merida, who had been poached by Arsenal, who were clearly the true target.

Merida was with Barcelona for no fewer than eight formative years, when he suddenly, a couple of years ago, walked out on the Catalan club, signing with Arsenal less than a year later. Ferran Soriano, Barcelona’s vice-president, opined: “The ruling recognises the rights of the clubs that are educating and raising children.” Indeed.

Merida intends to appeal, but should he lose again, Arsenal’s whole poaching policy will clearly have to be reassessed. Barcelona, no doubt, are still smarting from the way they lost Cesc Fabregas to Arsenal, as a teenager. Since then the little midfield player has made tremendous strides, making the presence of the far larger and older Patrick Vieira no more than a memory, and arguably emerging as the best player of the moment in the Premier League.

He was able to join Arsenal, who plainly felt they could do the same thing with Merida, because whereas Spanish players can turn professional only when they reach the age of 18, in England, youths can turn pro when they are only 16.

Wenger for his part laments that there simply aren’t the young English players to draw on; they lack the quality of their European counterparts. I do wonder about that. Everton for the present have two splendid black teenage forwards who are fast, strong and incisive. Crystal Palace recently and successfully launched a 15-year-old forward as a substitute.

I know that the excellent youth coach John Cartwright lamented the poor technical quality of the teenagers who came under his charge when he was running the Football Association school at Lilleshall, but are the players I have mentioned merely the exceptions who prove the rule? And how far does Wenger’s attitude condition the chances of those English boys who enter the youth scheme run by Arsenal at their London Colney training quarters? Moreover, you also wonder, as I have heard experienced youth coaches suggest, exactly how good the coaching there can be?

We are by now all too used to Arsenal fielding teams without a single British player. And this is the club which, in November, 1934, had no fewer than seven players in the England team which played Italy at their then home ground of Highbury! I am reminded of the wise words to me long ago, back in the early 1950s, of Manchester United’s famed manager, Matt Busby.

When I asked him after a game at Chelsea about his famous youth scheme, the so-called Busby Babes tradition, he said, “If you don’t put them in, you can’t know what you’ve got.” Arsenal’s magic trend began some years ago when they spirited the teenaged Nicolas Anelka, already a first team player, away from an incensed Paris Saint Germain. Again, what they did was quite legal, though PSG queried the morality of it. Sometime later Arsenal patronisingly threw an ex-gratia £500,000 to PSG, later selling him to Real Madrid for over £20 million!

Nowadays leading English clubs are enrolling children at the age of nine, which is a trend I find worrying and unhealthy. But are we to believe that none of these local boys, or only a tiny proportion of them, are ever going to make the grade? If so, why bother to enrol them and coach them?

It’s good to have as fine a player as Fabregas operating in England, and Arsenal have plainly looked after him well; but would he have been any less well-handled at Barcelona, who have nurtured such splendid players as the Argentine star Daniel Messi from the age 13?