Cole question mirrors concern in global game

THE PRODIGY PROBLEM Kevin Keegan must decide whether to protect undoubted talent of West Ham midfielder or pick him for England now
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It's about a year now since Franz Beckenbauer and Uli Hoeness caught a plane to Paraguay to see a 17-year-old forward called Roque Santa Cruz. Their interest had been aroused by a South American scout's description of a prodigy who was scoring goals for his club and had already won his first senior international cap.

It's about a year now since Franz Beckenbauer and Uli Hoeness caught a plane to Paraguay to see a 17-year-old forward called Roque Santa Cruz. Their interest had been aroused by a South American scout's description of a prodigy who was scoring goals for his club and had already won his first senior international cap.

Beckenbauer and Hoeness, the president and the general manager of Bayern Munich, spent a fortnight in Asuncion. During that time they watched the boy in several matches, talked to him, met his family, and worked out a £3m deal. So this summer, when Roque Santa Cruz, still only 17, emerged as one of the stars of the Copa America, scoring against Japan and Peru, he was already a Bayern Munich player. A couple of months after the end of the tournament, and just a week after his 18th birthday, he was making his Bundesliga debut. Last weekend he scored in the 3-0 away win over Hansa Rostock which lifted Bayern clear at the top of the table, just in time for the start of the club's centenary celebrations.

His new employers are monitoring his progress with great care. "It's just like in England," Bayern's spokesman, Markus Hörwick, told me this week. "The danger is that he becomes a superstar before he's even stepped off the plane. So we have been hiding him away. No interviews, no television. We wanted to give him time to grow up in Munich, and to understand the new situation. He's just arrived from Paraguay, you know. We don't want to have a second Ronaldo, who is 23 years old and is already dead in the body and dead in the head because nobody saved him."

Words like that freeze a football fan's blood. Ronaldo, the former boy wonder, "dead in the body and dead in the head" - just like those other former prodigies, Diego Armando Maradona and Paul Gascoigne, boys whose precocious skills amazed and astonished their public, who played without a cloud on their horizon until the sky came crashing down.

It helps, Hörwick said, that Santa Cruz is an intelligent boy. "He's had a good education. His father is the chief of police in Asuncion. He started to learn German at a good institute in Paraguay, and now he's here he spends two hours a day on it. Already he speaks good German. He's looking and learning each day. I don't think we have any problems there."

Young players like Roque Santa Cruz are the raw currency of football. The other young star of the Copa America, the 16-year-old Jhonnier Montaño of Colombia, scored an astonishing goal as the team pasted Argentina 3-0. Now he is on Parma's bench, waiting for the chance that will surely come soon. At Milan there is Mohammed Aliyu, a Nigerian forward, also 16, who caused a stir when he came on as a sub in a Serie A match last January. "He's fast, and he's very good in the air," Mauro Tassotti, the great full-back who now coaches Milan's youth team, said afterwards. "Now we have to make sure he keeps his feet on the ground, and teach him how to use his head."

At Chelsea there is Samuele Dalla Bona, the captain of Italy's Under-18 side, who made his debut as a substitute against Feyenoord in the Champions' League last month. And in Buenos Aires there is Javier Saviola of River Plate, the leading scorer in the Argentinian championship, who celebrated his 18th birthday with two goals against Ferrocarril Oeste recently. Barcelona's bid of around £20m has apparently been turned down by Saviola's mother, who has told her son to wait until after the 2002 World Cup.

England's own current prodigy is Joe Cole, who was 18 in November and is a playmaker, which is what Kevin Keegan is crying out for as he approaches the Euro 2000 finals. Cole has excelled in international youth tournaments. He has a solid family background. Sir Alex Ferguson and Gérard Houllier are among his admirers. "This young man will play for England within the next year," Trevor Francis, who made his own league debut at 16, said after Cole's winning goal had sentenced his Birmingham City side to elimination from the Worthington Cup three weeks ago.

Last spring, Keegan called Cole into the England training camp during the preparation for the Euro 2000 qualifier against Sweden, to get him used to the environment. Some judges, however, believe that too much is being expected of an unproven talent. "Anybody who writes a story saying that Joe Cole is the answer to England's problems should be taken out and shot," a fellow journalist said to me in the summer, believing that such claims imposed an unfair burden. Others are less convinced by Cole's talent, and they might have felt their criticisms justified by the 45 minutes he played against Aston Villa at Upton Park on Wednesday night, when his neat touches were neutralised by the experience of his marker, George Boateng.

"There's been a lot of hype about Joe Cole," I was told by one coach with a northern Premier League club, who declined to be identified. "He does things that catch the eye, but can he affect the course of a match? You have to look at West Ham's results since he came into the side. Not that great, are they? His progress isn't as impressive as David Beckham's at the same age."

That may be unfair. West Ham are not Manchester United, and expecting Cole to provide the service for two skilful but eccentric forwards, Messrs Di Canio and Wanchope, may involve asking him the wrong footballing questions at this point in his development. But he has started six of the last seven Premier League games, and his manager, Harry Redknapp, seems committed to building the side around his gifts.

Cole is a member of a generation of English footballers that Houllier, who reshaped French football at youth level, believes to be of outstanding quality. But there remains a fear that English football is not set up in such a way as to ease and assist the transition from youth team to first team, and then from first team to national team. Was Michael Owen the forerunner or the exception? And are his recent injuries and loss of touch connected with the demands of the system which produced him?

"It's certainly harder for a young player to break into a first team in England than it was in my day," Liam Brady said. An Arsenal player at 17, Brady now supervises the club's extensive youth scheme. "And it tends to come a little later. That's simply because the standard of English football is very high at the moment. We have the economic power, thanks to the money from satellite TV, to attract top-class players from abroad, and club directors are looking for results the whole time. That makes it more difficult to give players their chance at 17 or 18. It seems to be taking another year or two. Nowadays most of them come in at 19 or 20."

According to Brady, if they haven't made it by 20, it's time for them to move on. But he doesn't believe that the genuine prodigies are held back. "Look at Owen and Giggs," he said. "They got their chance." For him, however, the situation is inevitably frustrating. "I can't wait for it to happen. Here at Highbury we've got exceptional players who are getting close to the time when they'll be knocking on the manager's door and saying, 'I'm ready.' I want to get to the point that Manchester United reached, where the manager could afford to let a few superstars go because he had faith in his younger players."

As for Cole, Brady says that if Keegan is convinced of the West Ham boy's quality, the time to pick him is now. "Keegan's problem is that he's got Euro 2000 coming up, followed by the World Cup qualifying matches. There are only two or three warm-up games. If Keegan believes in him, the kid should play."

Like Brady, Ray Wilkins was a precocious playmaker who went on to conquer English and Italian football. Picked for Chelsea's first team at 17, captain at 18, he distinguished himself with Manchester United and Milan. "Joe Cole is a very, very exciting prospect," he said. "He's quick, he can beat people for fun, and he's got the perfect temperament."

Perhaps mindful of his recent experience as a coach with the star-studded Chelsea squad, Wilkins also feels that today's young English footballers face a more difficult struggle to establish themselves. "If they want to get noticed, they have to work their socks off, because the clubs can afford to go out and buy someone who will give them success yesterday. But it's still possible to break through. Just look at Manchester United, and what they've achieved with their youngsters."

Brady, too, was keen to compliment Sir Alex Ferguson's regime when I asked whether he thought there was a problem helping the really talented English players to fulfil their potential at the highest level. He pointed straight to the success of Beckham and Paul Scholes on the international scene. "I don't think there's anything wrong with the way they've been integrated into the England team," he said.

Wilkins was similarly robust. "Who do Santa Cruz and Montano play for?" he asked. Having done TV commentary on the Copa America, he knew the answer. "Paraguay and Colombia. Two nations that probably couldn't lace our boots. Don't you think Joe Cole would get into those teams? I do. And if he's good enough to play for England, he'll be given his head."

For Kevin Keegan, it will be the biggest of judgement calls. No one knows better the England coach, himself a late developer, that every young player is an individual. But this is a young man's game, and no sight is more exhilarating than that of a young talent expressing itself. When Keegan thinks about the immediate future of Joe Cole, he might ask himself these questions. Did playing in Sweden in 1958 damage the 18-year-old Pele's progress? And did being left out of the 1978 World Cup, at the age of 17, help to preserve the body of Diego Maradona, or to save his soul?