How many times has a young footballer been called a country’s version of one of the current or former stars of the beautiful game? And how many times will promising young footballers fail before we, as a collective footballing community, realise that we need to change the way that we treat these young people?
Now, more than ever, the pressure is on for the projected superstars of tomorrow. Imagine the hype if Cristiano Ronaldo and Ricardo Quaresma were just now tearing through Sporting Lisbon’s academy system straight to the first team.
Back then finding precocious players was a quiet art. Now, the press seems to be just as apt, if not better, at uncovering exciting young players and, once they find them, they proceed to blow them up, raising expectations and thus increasing pressure. Some seem to handle the pressure relatively well, as in the case of Marcus Rashford and Dele Alli, and some simply tumble.
It is perhaps understandable why so many struggle to live up the hype dumped on them by over-eager journalists and fans in search of the one who will lead them to sustained success. For most teenagers, central worries include acne, homework and their latest crush, but these players add those on top of the thought of playing in front of tens of thousands of fans every weekend.
The United States is a footballing community that knows this reality all too well. The story of Freddy Adu is the cautionary tale. Adu was signed by MLS at age 14 and famously dubbed the ‘next Pelé’. The hype around this teenager was unprecedented – MLS portrayed him as soccer’s saviour. Less than halfway into his fourth season, aged just 18, he signed for Benfica. Adu then proceeded to epically flame out, bouncing around clubs all over the world.
This year, in an exclusive with Goal.com’s Ives Galarcep, Adu said that: “You can say, ‘Oh, I had a lot too early’, or say whatever you want. But at the end of the day we all need to grow up at some point.” I think unanimously it can be agreed that we all need to grow up at some point, but I think it can also be just as soundly agreed that 14 is too early to have to “grow up”.
By now, Karamoko Dembele’s name has probably popped into your head. The 13-year-old is a good example of how not to handle a burgeoning talent who has captured the press’s attention. Whilst it is positive that the player has not conducted interviews, and thus has not been brought into the shameful hype surrounding him, certain individuals should be ashamed.
They should be ashamed for offering comment on articles concerning the young boy – yes, boy, because that is what he is, a boy – as it makes them not just complicit, but promoters of a perverse culture in football of hyping up young players (often minors).
The Vancouver Whitecaps’ policy of not allowing press interviews in handling their own young player, 15-year-old Alphonso Davies, is most definitely a positive step forward. Having seen him play in-person earlier this year, it is safe to say the hype is understandable, but that by no means makes it acceptable. The issue here is that, as much as the club can attempt to limit the hype’s impact on Davies, there is little they can do when the press are pumping out articles regarding Premier League interest.
This leads us to a rather wide question regarding media coverage of minors: at what point is enough, enough? It is probably too much to suggest coverage of minors by name in the media be banned in order to protect the sanctity of their childhoods.
However, anyone who has read a tabloid knows that minors are not deemed off limits by the press, and in that regard it is worth having a conversation. Specifically, we should question whether or not minors should be exploited by the media, especially when their interest to the public has little to no substantive purpose.
Furthermore, a conversation remains to be had within the footballing community about how young players are handled but, for now, I will leave you with this sentiment: let kids be kids.
Image courtesy of Jarrett Campbell