Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Last week, the continuing discussions about the pros and cons of football agents reached the Dutch parliament. Socialist MP Tjeerd van Dekken called on the sports minister to consider legislation on agents picking up under-16 players. On the Labour Party's website, he used the term "ronselen", a word equivalent in meaning to the English phrase "press gang".
Van Dekken's comments were triggered by recent articles in the weekly football magazine Voetbal International. One of them carried a picture of Daan Kramp, an employee at the Forza Fides agency, taken with Nathan Ake at Chelsea FC.
Fifteen-year-old Ake was at Feyenoord when he made the switch to Stamford Bridge at the start of this year. According to earlier reports in the British press, he had the choice of joining Manchester City or Chelsea. When asked for the link between the youngster and the agent by the reporters, the agency explained that Kramp is a friend of the Ake family and that they met accidentally. Kramp was in London as an advisor, while Ake was just touring the impressive stadium.
Chelsea must have learned a lesson from the Gael Kakuta case: Wil van Megen, the legal councillor of international players' union FIFPro, stresses that players must not sign until their 16th birthday. "Transfers within Europe are only legal when the guy becomes 16. When the agent makes his parents sign an agreement with him, before the player signs for the club, he can take a percentage."
By then, Ake is old enough to beat the '90-mile radius' restriction on Premier League clubs. Will his current club Feyenoord complain? Probably not. Van Megen assumes that the club has received a pay-off to keep silent. With Feyenoord desperately looking for income, they might be quite happy with this development.
You may wonder how Chelsea were aware of a schoolboy from Rotterdam, but Ake is a Netherlands youth international. English clubs' scouts, usually ex-pros from the Eredivisie, fill the stands at every international youth game, while they also frequent the grounds on Saturday afternoons. They watch the games, and might also approach the parents of the talent they spot. And who can resist the name of a big club mentioned in the same sentence as their own boy? A handshake for them is just as official as a contract and there is little the law can do about that. Although the Minister of Sports is currently looking into the matter, it is unlikely any regulations will follow.
So what happens to the talents once they are picked up by Premier League clubs? Jeffrey Bruma appeared close to becoming the most successful example. He moved from Feyenoord to Chelsea four years ago and has made some appearances in the Premier League. In August, Bruma played the full 90 minutes for Netherlands on their visit to Ukraine, after having an impressive season for the Dutch Under-21s. Last month, he started against Aston Villa. That ended in a goalfest and Bruma has been shipped to Leicester City on loan since. On top of that, Chelsea bought defender David Luiz for about €25 million from Benfica, which is not a good omen for the young Dutchman.
Around the time that Bruma moved to Stamford Bridge, Arsenal picked up Nacer Barazite from Nijmegen. The supporters were stupefied to hear that Arsenal signed an NEC player. They would not recognise him if they sat next to him in the stadium. For him, it was the chance of a lifetime. What better place in England to go than to Arsenal's youth academy?
After a bright start, he played a few games in the League Cup and was deemed good enough for a place on the bench in May 2008 against relegated Sunderland. Then he went on loan to Derby County in the Championship where he scored one goal in 30 appearances. The next season he hardly played and lost his place in the Dutch Under-21 squad. This year, he returned to the Netherlands to play in his hometown, Arnhem, with Vitesse. After a disappointing spell, he was sent back to Arsenal, where they also told him that he was not needed.
Just before the transfer deadline, Barazite signed for Austria Vienna. Although a fine, traditional club of Mitropa Cup fame, it is hardly the place he thought he would be now after arriving at Emirates Stadium in 2006.
Another one to live the dream was Jordy Brouwer, a Netherlands Under-19 international, who signed for Liverpool in January 2007. After a talk with Rafael Benitez and promises of League Cup games, Brouwer had high hopes for the next four years. He dined with Steven Gerrard, got kicked in the legs by Martin Skrtel and trained under Kenny Dalglish, who loved to put his boots on in his director days and have a practice with the kids who stuck around. And that was it.
Having had occasional training sessions with the squad in his first few seasons and an unsuccessful loan spell at RKC Waalwijk, Brouwer returned at Anfield to find Gary Ablett gone and replaced by the long-ball favouring John McMahon. It was not Brouwer's preferred style. Last summer, Liverpool told him to look for another club as there was no longer a place for him, even in the reserves. After the winter break, he joined ADO Den Haag and played his first few minutes last weekend as a substitute.
The money is good in the Premier League, which Brouwer readily admits, but it can stagnate a talent's career. However, staying in the Netherlands is not necessarily a guarantee to reach the top, as I mentioned in an ESPNsoccernet column some years ago. There are many pitfalls to avoid for a young player, while he and his parents have many decisions to make. Giving all their power over to an agent may not be the best road to travel, but it is understandable when parents are looking for advice. The clubs can be just as ruthless as the agents.