Sport in Argentina: Footballing industry that must face up to an export crisis

In the second of his series on a remarkable sporting nation, Paul Newman in Buenos Aires explains why their footballers may be too talented for the country's good
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The Independent Football

If ever a coach should have been optimistic at the start of a new season it was Hugo Tocalli. Returning to club football after 13 years working with Argentina's national sides, the former team-mate of Diego Maradona has inherited a strong squad at Velez Sarsfield that includes five of the players he guided to two successive World Under-20 championships. Tocalli, however, fears for the future of Argentine club football. Last weekend's opening games in the Clausura (closing) championship – the First Division calendar is divided into two separate seasons, the Apertura (opening) championship having finished in December – featured some fine football, spectacular goals and decent crowds, but some familiar faces were missing.

Argentina has become one of the world's great exporters of football talent and during the recent break another 59 players from the top division went overseas. Some moved to other South American countries and others to football outposts like Israel or Cyprus, but plenty left for the bigger European nations.

Ever Banega, who played for Boca Juniors against Milan in the world club championship, joined Valencia for £6m, Olympiakos' offer of more than £5m persuaded River Plate to sell Fernando Belluschi, one of their best midfielders, and Osmar Ferreyra, who helped San Lorenzo win the Clausura title last year, moved to Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk on a four-year contract. "Having so many players go to play in other countries might become a problem for us in the future," Tocalli said.

"Youngsters need to see their idols playing for the big Argentinian teams. And losing so many means that many young players appear in our First Division when their football education isn't complete." If the export of players is not as great as in neighbouring Brazil, where 1,085 footballers (from all levels) left last year to play abroad, a combination of Argentine football's long-term financial problems and the country's rising inflation rate, which is currently about 20 per cent per year, means that playing overseas has become an increasingly attractive prospect. Many First Division players can earn more in countries like Hungary, Romania or Finland or at Third Division level in Spain or Italy.

Nearly all the Argentina team play abroad, mostly in Europe. Juan Sebastian Veron and Diego Placente are back playing for Estudiantes and San Lorenzo respectively, but their international days are probably over. Younger players who have returned from Europe are generally those who have failed to make an impact, including 27-year-old Andres D'Alessandro, once of Portsmouth and Real Zaragoza, and 20-year-old Maxi Morales, who was regarded as one of the best prospects when he was sold to FC Moscow.

The exception is Juan Roman Riquelme, who at 29 has returned to Boca from Villarreal. Maradona's former club had to sell in order to find the €15m (£11.2m) it took to recruit Argentina's great playmaker, who is one of three over-age players (along with Javier Mascherano and Martin Demichelis) who will lead the country's defence of their Olympic title this summer.

Many of the other players in the Under-23 squad worked under Tocalli when he guided Argentina to the Under-20 world championship in both 2005 and 2007, extending the country's record to five victories in the last seven tournaments. Most of the world's best young Argentines have worked with the former goalkeeper, who recalls being "bewildered" by the ball skills of a 16-year-old Lionel Messi and remembers the sheer willpower of a 14-year-old Carlos Tevez.

Tocalli, who was also assistant to Jose Pekerman, coach of the senior team at the 2006 World Cup, is worried that the pressing need to sell players is making Argentine clubs reluctant to spend time developing their juniors. "About eight years ago I watched a youth match at River Plate," he recalled.

"The players were about 13 or 14. In the second half they brought on two little kids for 20 minutes – [Javier] Saviola and D'Alessandro. They weren't big enough or strong enough to make a huge impact but their skill was clear. Today clubs wouldn't give those two little kids a chance and we wouldn't now have players of their quality.

"The structure of our youth football hasn't changed in that boys still start playing matches at 12, but the mentality has. Twenty years ago people didn't worry too much whether youth teams won or lost. Now that seems to be all-important.

"I'm worried that the emphasis on winning will mean we'll stop producing players like Riquelme and D'Alessandro, those players who can play in the hole behind the strikers and create things with their skill. We're producing too many running machines. The skill is being lost."

Tocalli is also concerned at the changing culture of street football, with the relentless building of high-rise apartment blocks squeezing out the traditional potrero (playground or field), where young Argentine players have traditionally developed their trademark close control and dribbling skills.

"Most of the talents that the great Argentinian players have had have been developed by playing on bad pitches with broken boots – or no boots at all," Tocalli said. "They've learned to play on pitches full of bumps and with cans sticking out of the ground. If you can control the ball on a surface like that, then when you play on a decent pitch it's as though your feet are like a pair of hands controlling the ball.

"There used to be a potrero around every corner, but now buildings are going up everywhere and youngsters seem more interested in computers and TV than playing football. I know these are trends that are happening in other countries, but football is so important here. It's part of our social fabric."

Many clubs believe their financial problems could be solved by a better deal on TV rights, which have been sold until 2014. The total annual fee for First Division clubs nearly doubled last year to 150 million pesos (£24.3m), but at a price. Every match is now televised live on cable television, some of it on pay-per-view, with kick-offs staggered between late afternoon on Friday and late evening on Sunday. Nearly half the TV money goes to Boca and River Plate.

There are also concerns that attendances might dip after the national federation, which sets admission prices, increased them recently by 70 per cent.

The 10 matches in the opening programme were watched by an average of 23,000. Seats cost up to 24 pesos (£3.90), although most supporters are "socios" (members), who pay between 30 and 40 pesos per month but receive free entry. Apart from Racing, who are in administration, all the clubs are one-member one-vote non-profit-making organisations.

At Velez Sarsfield's home match against Colon on Saturday a 4-3 victory kept the home faithful happy, but how many of their young team will still be there when the European raiding parties leave this summer?

Hidden gems: Four to treasure from Argentina's rich seam of talent

Diego Buonanotte (River Plate, aged 19)

One of Argentina's brightest striking prospects, despite having played only nine times for his club and scored only two goals. Has made a big impression in his 11 appearances for the national Under-20 team.

Matias Fritzler (Lanus, 21)

Played a key role from midfield as Lanus finished the surprise champions in the 2007 Apertura championship. Four caps for the Argentina Under-20 team. Only a matter of time before senior international debut.

Jonatan Maidana (Boca Juniors, 22)

Accomplished defender who has made huge strides since making his debut for Boca 16 months ago. Looks set to play a big part in Olympic team and scored in last week's friendly against Guatemala in Los Angeles

Diego Valeri (Lanus, 21)

A goalscoring midfielder who was rated the best player in the Apertura championship. In fifth season with Lanus, but has become a regular only in the last two years. Two caps for Argentina's Under-20 team.

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