Fertile Fields

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Not just players and clubs seek to make big money from football as salaries and transfer fees soar across Europe. Agents, those mysterious middlemen who operate in the zone between the grass and the president's office, are also on the make. Increasingly, they are turning their attention to the burgeoning youth market, signing up promising youngsters barely into their teens to hawk them around Europe. And the trade in young football flesh is drawing a chorus of protest. "We don't think it's particularly healthy to see 14, 15, 16-year-olds signed by agents to be marketed," says Guy Mislin, spokesman for France's Ligue Nationale de Football. France has a law pending that would limit the role and remuneration of agents and set conditions on recruitment of young players. Still, Mislin notes that the law won't halt the poaching of young players, which he says is "happening all over Europe." He would like to see "a European law, applicable to everyone involved."

No club, or country, likes to see promising talent lured away. The imperative is partly a paternal one, to protect the stars of tomorrow from being exploited. Sometimes, agents sign young players without any get-out clause in the contract. "You hear horrendous stories of nine and 10-year-olds being approached by agents," says Michael McGuire, assistant chief executive of England's Professional Footballers' Association, which has a special division to advise youngsters and their parents on career development.

But the move to rein in agents also has much to do with protecting the investment that governments and professional clubs make in their youth development programs. In the Netherlands, the highly successful program of Amsterdam-based Ajax focuses not only on developing players' technique, vision and spatial skills, but on nurturing their competitive streak. "The way we can best afford good players is to train them ourselves," says club spokesman Erik van Leeuwen. In 1997, inspired by strong European schemes, the English Football Association introduced the academy system, which requires participating clubs to have a minimum number of playing areas and pitches, study areas and a full-time welfare officer for their young charges. In France, professional clubs have a development structure that extends down through semiprofessional and youth teams, and regularly produces large numbers of good players: virtually all members of the 1998 World Cup-winning team came up through these ranks. To help ensure that French clubs are not left holding an empty sack after years of nurturing and training young players, France's Minister of Sports, Marie-Georges Buffet, put forward legislation seeking to reinforce the relationship between teams and their proteges and to dissuade agents hoping to sign them for more money abroad.

But in the search for the stars of tomorrow, a more worrying trend is a growing trade in very young players from outside the European Union, particularly Africa. Unscrupulous agents sign the youngsters for peanuts and then flog them to E.U. clubs. "It's at almost epidemic proportions," says Andreas Herren, a spokesman for soccer's world governing body FIFA. "If it doesn't work out, they are literally dropped in the street." This is not only ruining the lives of many youngsters, says Herren, but also affects the youngsters' home country: it suffers player drain.

Meanwhile, the agent simply moves on in the hunt for the next "could-be-Ronaldo."

With reporting by Bruce Crumley/Paris and James Graff/Brussels