Underage transfers: The growing trend that's hurting European soccer

Underage transfers: The growing trend that's hurting European soccer

In the last year alone, Ajax has lost four major prospects. That's not necessarily remarkable in its own right, talent is always leaving Ajax – which produces more top-tier talent than any club in Europe – except that all four of them were just 16 when they left and nowhere near the first team.

All four of them were playing in Ajax's B-age category, essentially the under-17s, meaning they were still three levels removed from the first team. None of them were under professional contract yet – Ajax has a policy against signing players younger than 17 and is now amending it – but left for major clubs regardless.

Last summer, Javairo Dilrosun left for Manchester City, Timothy Fosu-Mensah went to Manchester United and Mink Peeters signed with Real Madrid. Now, Donyell Malen has rejected Ajax's contract offer in favor of Arsenal's, leading some to inexplicably refer to the pubescent striker as the "new Thierry Henry."

If Ajax is a prominent and extreme example, this is nonetheless a growing trend across Europe. The biggest of clubs are increasingly pillaging the better academies to stock their youth teams, even though first-team opportunities are very sparse for homegrown players there.

Manchester City, for instance, lists 13 foreign players on the roster of its "Elite Development Squad" with another eight out on loan. Its academy team has seven. Yet even though this has been a policy for several years, there are just two academy graduates – foreign or English – in City's first team. Jose Angel Pozo, a Spaniard, has made just four appearances. Rony Lopes, a Brazilian, has none.

This is how it goes. Of the players who have been tempted into making such a major move at a young age, it's hard to think of many that have been a success other than Cesc Fabregas, who left Barcelona for Arsenal when he was 16. Perhaps Giuseppe Rossi, the New Jersey-born Italian international who jumped from Parma to Manchester United when he was 17, but his career is in the throes of incessant injuries.

It almost never works out. Let's circle back to the example of the Netherlands, where foreign clubs are scouting and signing younger and younger prospects.

Dutch defender Nathan Ake is one of the few to break through at Chelsea. (AP Photo)
Dutch defender Nathan Ake is one of the few to break through at Chelsea. (AP Photo)

Patrick van Aanholt left PSV for Chelsea at 17 and never got close to the first team. He was loaned out five times before finally being sold to Sunderland. Karim Rekik left Feyenoord at 16, going to City. He was loaned out three times but got no nearer to the Citizens' first team before agreeing to a move to Marseille. Nacer Barazite left NEC for Arsenal at 16 but never made his debut, and after spending time with four different clubs, he's now with FC Utrecht. Nathan Aké left Feyenoord for Chelsea at 17 and has actually made out better than the others, with all of 12 competitive appearances over four years. It's unlikely that the young-Ruud Gullit lookalike will ever be a starter there, though.

A few more: Vincent van den Berg left Heerenveen for Arsenal at 17 and never made it into the first team. By the time he was 20, he was playing in the Dutch amateur leagues, where he remains. Kyle Ebecilio joined Arsenal from Feyenoord at 16 and never made an appearance, either – he's with FC Twente now. Jeffrey Bruma left Feyenoord for Chelsea at 15 and made four appearances before the club gave up on him. He's currently with PSV.

This list, which is probably growing tedious by now, is a good deal longer than this. And those are just the Dutch examples.

Players are tempted far too soon, in spite of the library jammed full with cautionary tales. Agents get in their ear – "You'll be different. Why wait until you're established? We can go now. Just look at the money! Haven't you always wanted to play for Very Big Club?" – but instead of developing organically, slowly working their way up the ladder to their first teams and then seeking out better clubs, players jump quickly. The clubs, meanwhile, play a numbers game, signing scores of prospects while they're cheap, in the hopes that a few pay off.

That's how a generation of elite talent finds itself plodding along, trying to resuscitate careers on life support in hopes of making good on at least some of their potential. The above names should, by now, have the makings of the Dutch national team. But only three of them have even made an appearance. Bruma has eight caps, Rekik has one and Van Aanholt two. It's early yet, but they probably won't be the stars they were supposed to become, drawing the attention of all of those big clubs.

While all in their very early 20s, they already constitute something of a lost generation. The odds that they'll deliver on at least some of their promise are a fraction of what they once were. And yet teenagers all over Europe keep making these kinds of moves, convinced that they'll be the next Cesc, rather than one of the dozens who didn't become the next Cesc.

A few years ago, FIFA made a rule that players under 18 couldn't be transferred to another country – unless your parents moved there for legitimate non-soccer reasons. The rule, however, does not apply within the European Union, where you can move to another country at 16.

Until this rule is amended in some meaningful way, until all underage transfers are banned – which might be a tough sell to the European Commission and the European Court of Justice – talent will continue to evaporate in a haze of prematurely indulged dreams.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.