Fever pitch

The top clubs' hunger for profits is leading to ever more aggressive bidding wars for football prodigies. Boys scarcely in their teens are being lured by the prospect of multi-million-pound contracts. But, asks James Lawton, is it a case of too much, too young?
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If his young life had unfolded in another way, Freddy Adu's extraordinary talent might have perished in the teeming back streets of his native Accra in Ghana, West Africa. Instead, his mother won the great prize of a green card to work in America. Freddy got to ride in a yellow school bus. He got to play "soccer" on manicured fields rather than flinty patches of waste ground.

Now, at the alleged age of 14, he is widely considered to be potentially the greatest player in the history of football. His birthdate, say experienced judges of the world game, is so far the only question mark to be set against his mesmerising impact.

Some believe that the maturity of his game, his sinuous athleticism and eruptive skill, make a nonsense of claims that he was born as recently as 1989. But all else about Freddy Adu is freely granted. Well, perhaps not freely. Though a Chelsea spokesman insisted this week that "we never comment on speculation," the club, awash with the money of the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, is believed to be on the point of paying £3m for an option on his contract when he reaches 17. They are said to have outbid such rivals as Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus and AC Milan.

Adu's agent, Richard Motzkin, who has already nailed down a $1m (£600,000) contract with Nike, cannot keep the euphoria out of his voice when he says: "We're going through a very proper negotiating process with multiple parties to see if we can reach a conclusion that works for Freddy and his family. We expect a deal to be completed within weeks, not months."

For his part, Freddy is already living this most cosmopolitan of American dreams. "I see myself in a World Cup final for the USA, playing against a top-notch team everyone picks to win," he says. "And we just come out and blast them. One day I'm holding that trophy and someone's gonna take the picture. Oh man, it's going to be huge."

But is it? If Freddy has created a unique momentum for himself, he is also part of a trend that many football experts - and psychologists - see as deeply worrying.

With the traditional supply lines of football talent dwindling in Western Europe, the bastion of football wealth, the drive to pick up the best youngsters has never been so intense. If you happen to be Freddy Adu, or his agent, this may be the best of news. But what could it mean for other putative superstars - and, if things go wrong, perhaps even for Adu himself?

Ultimately, it could mean broken dreams and emotional mayhem. Certainly, the act of handing a fortune to a teenager before he has climbed all the rungs of the professional game is one obvious problem for the investing clubs: how does a kid with three or four million pounds in the bank retain the hunger that created players of the competitive character of Pele, the Brazilian still recognised as the greatest player who ever lived, or the once luminous, now tragic, Diego "Hand of God" Maradona?

A warning has already been sounded by Adu's current coach in the US, Ray Hudson, who runs the Washington-based Major Soccer League club DC United. Hudson, a former Newcastle United player, is willing to acclaim Adu's stunning ability: "A blind man on a galloping horse can see his talent - he's a little Fabergé egg. He has a god-given talent." But, he adds: "Big clubs must let him mature into a young man. A move now could ruin him - and it's just not worth taking the gamble."

Liam Brady, the head of Arsenal's academy of young talent, recently approved the payment of compensation worth more than £1m to the Spanish club Barcelona for the services of 16-year-old Francesc Fabregas, who became the London club's youngest-ever first-teamer last week. Brady was in the running for Adu before the bidding became too steep. He accepts that, in an age when £30m transfer fees and vast contracts are becoming routine, it makes financial sense to gamble on an Adu or a Fabregas - or even an 18-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, who cost Manchester United £12m. But he points out the obvious dangers. "There is no such thing as a certainty at 14 - there just can't be. Paul Gascoigne was a little fat boy at that age. No one would have gambled three quid, let alone three million."

A few years ago, Brady approved the payment of £1.25m to Notts County for the brilliant teenage prospect Jermaine Pennant, who was then part of the club's youth academy and who has subsequently proved a classic example of the dilemma facing a big club as it appraises young prospects. Pennant's ability is huge, but he is now on loan to Leeds United - partly because his dedication as a professional has yet to match the splendour of his play. Brady, in his time a magnificently fulfilled professional player for Arsenal, Juventus and Ireland, adds: "Jermaine has quite a few issues to work through before he can tell himself he has made it. There are so many intangibles, and one thing has to be accepted straight away. It is that talent is only one aspect of success. You also need character and an ability to mature quickly in a very competitive atmosphere."

Traditionally, top clubs have used youth academies to develop young talent. But the huge financial stakes of the modern game have changed the emphasis from development to recruitment - and increased the temptation to ignore the best interests of the youngsters in question in the race to sign up those with the most promise. Brady says it was inevitable that the richest clubs would come to look beyond the academy system. "The flow of talent has dwindled, so the big clubs are always going to keep their eyes open for someone special emerging from beyond the system."

Nor is he surprised to learn that Sir Alex Ferguson has the habit of bombarding bright young things with birthday and Christmas cards, or that the much-touted Adam Pepper, until recently captain of the Liverpool under-12 schoolboy team, received a card from the Old Trafford star Ryan Giggs. "I don't do it myself," Brady says, "but it is one way of going about things. However, you have to say it still cost Alex £12m to sign Ronaldo."

Pepper's father, Ronnie, said recently he no longer took his son to watch Everton at Goodison Park because of "pestering by agents and club officials". However, one leading club reports that it turned down an overture from an "agent" who claimed to be representing the Pepper family.

The other issue, according to Brady, is that one about hunger. "When a kid's financial future is secure at the age of 15 or so, it is always going to be a threat to his ambition. Except in the utterly exceptional player." An interesting perspective comes from George Cohen, a World Cup winner for England in 1966. Cohen started his career at a time when the maximum wage for a young player was £10 a week in the winter and £9 in the summer, with a £2 bonus for appearing in the first team. In his autobiography, Cohen wrote: "Today when I hear of some kid being besieged by scouts, and his family hearing sweet talk of riches that were beyond their dreams before little Johnny started to kick the ball with some promise, I have to wonder what is happening inside the youngster's head.

"How hard will he work at his game when he knows that the future is more or less financially guaranteed? How can he have that gnawing feeling at the pit of his stomach which came to the young players of my generation when they looked at the team-sheets which measured the flow - or the ebb - of their career hopes? Achieving in professional sport, without hunger, without the fear that you are always one step away from making another living in another walk of life, is a challenge to which I just cannot relate. At Fulham, at 15, the challenge in front of me could not have been more basic. I had to run harder than ever before, and that was just to survive."

For the moment, Freddy Adu seems ready to declare his willingness to keep on running. "I love having the ball at my feet and running at the defender one-on-one," he says. "That's when I'm at my best, when I can pull some weird move and get by him and everyone goes 'Ohhhhh...' I just love that. Sometimes I can amaze myself."

So far, so good, say Freddy's minders and suitors. Here in England, meanwhile, a mood of concern has recently surrounded the prospects of the home-grown prodigy Wayne Rooney. On Saturday, the 18-year-old Everton and England star was celebrating his birthday at Aintree racecourse, which had been hired by his agents, Pro-Active. The pop star Robbie Williams was among the guests. Rooney's agent said that the event proved his client's desire properly to exploit his fame. A cheque for £75,000 from the sale of exclusive pictures to OK! magazine would be handed to Alder Hey children's hospital. A laudable act, no doubt, but for David Moyes, the gritty manager of Everton and a football man who has fought to protect his young player from the ravages of celebrity, the Aintree event was a nightmare. It matched all his fears about the distractions that are heaped upon an outstanding young player today.

In Adu's adopted home of America, the scenario of huge athletic expectation and eventual disappointment is a tragedy re-enacted in hundreds of rehab centres. LeBron James, a phenomenal young basketball star newly graduated to the national league, had trailed around the nation for several years with his high-school team. They were a teenage version of the old Harlem Globetrotters and James, who was followed by a squad of bodyguards, was the centrepiece. Now he has a $90m contract with Nike and a $10m-a-year deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The man he is expected to supplant as basketball's top player, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, is dealing with the havoc of a hugely publicised arrest on a sexual assault charge.

Such darkness is, of course, far removed from Freddy Adu's horizon. Everyone agrees that he is an engaging boy (or young man), plainly grateful for his good luck. He talks with boyish enthusiasm about what he believes awaits him. Why, he seems to ask, should he not walk in the godlike steps of Pele, who exploded as a 17-year-old into the consciousness of the sports world in 1958 when he scored two goals against Sweden in the World Cup final, after a semi-final hat-trick against France? Does he not, like Pele, have an unerring sense of time and space on the football field? Does he not instinctively strike at the jugular of the opposition, with tigerish relish? Yes, he does. Brady, who watched him in a youth tournament in Finland, shares the excitement. "There's no argument about the kid's ability. He is compelling and wonderfully mature as a player. But can he go the full course? Can he avoid the ambushes that the game and life will inevitably put in his way? That's a whole different story."

Maradona, before he lapsed into an anguished, drug-blurred middle age, survived such ambushes for a remarkably long time. It is worth considering why. As a boy, he was rescued from drowning in the open sewer that flowed past his front door in a Buenos Aires slum. He suffered career-long punishment from ruthless defenders who knew that their only chance of stifling him was to hack at his legs. Cynically, his clubs pumped him full of painkillers and sent him out to battle. And yet he was able to win an Italian title for Napoli, and carry off the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, virtually single-handedly. Why? It was because, on top of amazing talent, he had a will forged in tungsten, a hunger that could not be assuaged.

If the agents of Freddy Adu could guarantee such qualities, a bid of $3m would have provoked only a sneer these last few weeks. But they cannot. And they won't be able to do so for quite some time.

Young players: what's the score?

* Each year, Britain's 92 league clubs sign 500 players aged 16-19 to three-year scholarship programmes. They are paid £45-£90 a week in the first year, £50-£120 in the second year and an unlimited amount in the third. They are required to spend a minimum of 12 hours per week on education and personal development.

* Players are legally entitled to sign professional contracts from the age of 17. However clubs do trade in options on future contracts.

* All 20 Premiership football clubs have youth academies. They are legally allowed to sign up children as young as nine years old, as registered (and unpaid) schoolboys.

* There are more than 160 youth academies in Senegal, some funded by top European clubs.

* Manchester United are opening a soccer school for seven- to 14-year-olds at Disneyland Paris next spring.

* Reebok is planning to break into the US youth market by sponsoring Liverpool football club in opening a series of football academies for 12- to 18-year-olds across the continent.