What a waste of talent!

Published : Aug 04, 2001 00:00 IST

MANY things have changed radically in football, most recently the uneasy compromise worked out between FIFA, UEFA and the ever interfering European Union which, on top of the 1996 Bosman decision, gives footballers more freedom than ever. But one thing which still obstinately will not change is the waste of talent. For diverse reasons, it seems a constant in professional football, and one of its least attractive features.

One is referring, of course, to the plight of players who don't get the chance to figure in their clubs' top teams. Long ago, before the abolition of the maximum wage in England, in 1961, clubs could afford to keep huge squads of players because they paid them so little. More recently, especially among the leading clubs, it has been a case of so much money pouring into the game that large squads can be built up almost casually.

Barcelona are an ominous case in point. When I watched their supposedly weakened team play and beat Arsenal in a testimonial match towards the end of last season, enriching the Gunners' veteran goalkeeper, David Seaman, in the process, I almost had to rub my eyes. Both Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars were there, in the colours not of Arsenal, who had sold them the previous summer, but of Barcelona. Yet for much of the season Overmars, the dynamic little Dutch international winger, had seldom figured in the Catalans' first team, while Petit had been condemned till near the season's end to a watching brief. Evidently as inessential to Barcelona as he was so manifestly missed by Arsenal. Recently he has returned to London; but to Chelsea.

Nor was that all. Both the Barcelona goals were scored by Alfonso. Just a minute, I reminded myself: Alfonso? Yes, indeed, the real Alfonso, even if he wasn't playing in his famous white boots. The crafty and incisive centre-forward who had played often for Spain, been cast aside by Real Madrid, and flourished with Betis Seville. Yet throughout last season, he was no more than supporting cast at Barcelona.

Also on show was Ivan De La Pena, who, in midfield, looked quick, sharp and inventive. Not so long ago this player, nicknamed The Little Buddha, was a teenaged star with Barcelona, the club which had developed him, and looked set for many honours with his team and with Spain. But then things somehow went wrong. Buying wholesale at huge prices, Barcelona decided he was surplus to requirements, so off he went for spells at Marseille and Lazio. Before being brought back to Nou Camp; but not as a first choice.

Dani wasn't playing at Highbury that evening, but then he did not play very often at all for Barcelona last season. Another Real Madrid cast off, he had flourished and scored frequently for an unfashionable Mallorca team which surpassed itself in Europe. So to Barcelona; and a seat on the bench.

Certain Italian clubs, in particular, have been accused in the past of deliberately buying up star players so that other clubs wouldn't get them. This may or may not be true, and the situation was certainly exacerbated in bygone years when, as a result of a compromise between the European Union and UEFA, only three players from outside Italy though inside the EU could be fielded at a time, the others being obliged to watch from the stand. Milan were especially guilty of condemning star turns to such an ignominious fate. The likes of Jean-Pierre Papin (France), Brian Laudrup (Denmark) and Yugoslavia's gifted Savicevic were among the many well known sufferers.

Not that things are much better in Italy today. Nor at Milan. In season 2001-2002, their new manager, the Turk, Fatih Terim, has spoken of the potential power of having Ukrainian Andrei Shevchenko and the newly most expensively, acquired Italian international, Pippo Inzaghi, from Juventus, up front. Then, you ask yourself, what induced them to buy Javier Moreno from Alaves, after the former Barcelona junior had had a marvellously prolific season with the unfashionable Basque club, scoring so freely? And then there's another Spanish striker in Jose Mari, though it was well enough known that Milan would part company with the once prolific German, Oliver Bierhoff, who had had an unhappy season for club and country.

Clubs like Milan and Barcelona can afford to carry such top heavy rosters, to the detriment of well known players who can only sit and fret. Between the wars in England and for some years after, clubs such as Arsenal could easily afford to employ staffs of 40 or so players, who in many cases, kindly if not lavishly treated, were content in the reserves or even third teams to wait their chance; which would often never come.

The case of Leslie Compton, elder brother of that great footballer-cricketer, Denis, was notable. Leslie joined Arsenal in 1932 as a full-back and seemed in line to succeed the club captain and right-back, the veteran Tom Parker. But the Gunners' illustrious manager, Herbert Chapman, thought Leslie too slow and talked a young left half, George Male, into becoming a right back. He'd eventually win 19 caps for England.

So Leslie stayed in the "Stiffs," alias the reserves, right up, to the last war, during which time he played in two England trials! In wartime he played right back for England (official caps weren't given then) and was finally capped twice in 1950 at centre-half at the age of 38!

How far has the situation at Arsenal changed today? Fundamentally, I suggest, not at all. The club now spend millions on an elaborate youth scheme, yet few indeed are the players from it who are given their first team chance. Ashley Cole, last season, was the exception who proved the rule, being picked for England; and where did that leave the Brazilian international, Silvinho? When, this close season, Everton let their left-sided midfielder Stephen Hughes, go, you wondered how different things might have been had the Gunners not kept him for years in the reserves, when he showed such promise on the occasions they put him in the first team. Talent, alas, can wither on the bough.

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