The predatory English

To say that young Macheda has the so called Big Match Temperament to go with his formidable skills would be to put it mildly. But the $64,000 question: should he be playing for Manchester United at all, and what does it tell you — as if there were not enough evidence already — of the alarming phenomenon of rich English clubs purloining teenaged European stars? An analysis by Brian Glanville.

Every time the astonishing, precocious Federico Macheda gets another of his spectacular, decisive goals for Manchester United, it must be like a stab in the heart for the President of Lazio, Claudio Lotito. In fact he has more or less said so. For Macheda, all of 17 years old, Roman born and bred, Lazio nurtured and developed, should now be gracing the Stadio Olimpico in the club’s light blue. Instead, he has exploded on the English Premier League, first with a gloriously taken winning goal at Old Trafford against Aston Villa, wheeling away from his man to whip the ball in and thus win a match which seemed at best to be a shaky draw. Then almost casually at Sunderland sticking out foot to deflect home a shot from the midfielder Carrick, which would otherwise have gone well wide.

To say that young Macheda has the so called Big Match Temperament to go with his formidable skills would be to put it mildly. But the $64,000 question: should he be playing for Manchester United at all, and what does it tell you — as if there were not enough evidence already — of the alarming phenomenon of rich English clubs purloining teenaged European stars?

Given the financial abyss between Premiership teams and most of those in Europe, there is no way a European team is likely to hang on to such a teenaged talent if one of the English giants comes along. This despite, in Macheda’s case, the irony that for all their 75,000 crowds at Old Trafford, United, thanks to the machinations of the American Glaser clan who own them, are burdened with astronomical debt. This because the Glasers, wealthy though they be, borrowed vast amounts to buy the club and loaded it with the bulk of the huge debt, itself. Don’t ask me how they ever got away with it. At least Chelsea and Manchester City, whatever you may think of the distorting billions put into them by their owners, are the property of men who actually have the money. Even if Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich lost a vast fortune in the recent Russian credit crunch.

Heaven knows poor (literally) Lazio did their best to plead with United not to snatch Macheda, but it was all in vain. Their sporting director, Walter Sabatini, related how he wrote to the United manager, Alex Ferguson, explaining that Macheda was “still a young player and that I wanted him to stay. I received a reply once and it just said, ‘the rules permit me to do this and I will’” No sentiment in business, nor in football business. Alas, the legality of the situation is all too plain even if the morality is not. No ghost of an apology, it seems from Ferguson. Lotito observed bitterly, after Macheda’s spectacular debut, “All these players are robbed as a matter of course by this club (United.) They are always outside what is normal in terms of etiquette. They go to the parents and give them money and important jobs.

These are boys who came from poor families. The families base their choice on economic interests. It’s not moral. It is like a cattle market. The young players are treated like cattle.” The loophole being that, under Italian Law, which now could and should surely be changed, no footballer can sign a contract until he has reached his 16th birthday.

Roma, the other big Roman club, themselves had a young future star wrenched from them by Manchester United in the shape of Davide Patrucci, who has been nicknamed the new Francesco Totti. Which must make Roma, their team still inspired and captained by the 32-year-old Totti, all the more embittered.

Mind you, Manchester United have form, going all the way back to the early post-war years. Duncan Edwards, the supremely powerful young left half, who should have graced and galvanised the England team in the 1958 World Cup, died the previous February, after the horrific Munich airport disaster. He wouldn’t, Dudley born as he was, even have been on that plane, had he joined his local club, Wolves, as might have been expected. But he was lured to Old Trafford. As was a miraculously lucky survivor of that disaster, Bobby Charlton.

Coming from Ashington, in Northumberland, he was expected by his close relative, Jackie Milburn, then the idol and hero of Newcastle United, to join the local clubs at 15. They had even found him a part-time job. Suddenly, he had gone to Manchester United at 15. Jackie told me, himself, that Bobby’s mother Cissie, had apologised to him, but said the family couldn’t afford to turn down the £750 United paid them. It’s been denied, not least by Cissie herself, but I know whom I believe.

Arsenal, now are inspired from midfield by the dynamic Cesc Fabregas, whom they lured away from Barcelona, for nothing, when he was only 16.

In desperation, Barca are even personally suing another of their young players, swooped on by Arsenal, for breach of contract. You might say that the Gunners began the present, dubious trend when they snatched Nicolas Anelka from Paris Saint Germain when the teenager was already appearing frequently in the PSG League team. Arsenal paid nothing, but eventually threw PSG a derisory £500,000. Then proceeded to sell Anelka to Real Madrid for some £22 million!