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Smelling teen spirit: Chelsea eye Lukaku and Mascia after landing Piazón

12th April, 2011

Lucas Piazón. Next Kaká or next Kakuta?

Not satisfied with having already secured the services of the new Kaká for next season, Chelsea are currently hot on the tail of the next Diego Forlán and doing battle with several other European clubs including the Spanish giants Real Madrid and fellow Premier League side Tottenham Hotspurs for the signature of a player said to be the new Didier Drogba.

The three young men, Brazil’s Lucas Piazón, Uruguay’s Juan Cruz Mascia and Belgium’s Romelu Lukaka respectively, are are all still in their teens. Due to turn 18 this May, Lukaku is the eldest, though he has for some time been a mainstay in Anderlecht’s starting line-up. The other two are young enough to have recently starred in South America’s U-17 Championship, where Piazón guided his country to the trophy and Mascia finished as top-scorer with 6 goals.

Given the fact that several of their established stars, including the original Didier Drogba, are in their thirties the time would seem to be right to start integrating younger, fresher faces before the elder statesmen’s powers start to wane. Already a cadre of twenty-somethings have been brought in. The 27-year-old Fernando Torres, signed from Liverpool in January, may be yet to find form for his new club, but Ramires and David Luiz, both 24 this year, have both given impressive displays in Chelsea blue. With promising youth-teamers such as Josh McEachran and Nathaniel Chalobah also pressing claims for first-team inclusion, Chelsea seem to be building a bright future with no shortage of prodigious talents throughout the professional footballing age spectrum.

Nevertheless, that old adage about unhatched chickens and counting does spring to mind. Chelsea might do well at looking at the career paths of the original Kaká, Forlán and Drogba before gambling on three callow teenagers. All three established stars have arrived at considerable success but along quite different routes.

Romelu Lukaku, "the new Drogba". Disappearing soon at club near you?

Though it  may seem hard to believe now, there was no fanfare surrounding the arrival of Didier Drogba as a young footballer of great promise. This is largely because as a teenager Drogba was apprenticed to Le Mans, a club in France’s second tier. Drogba didn’t make a top-flight appearance until he was almost 24, nearly 8 years older than Lukaku, the teenager who is supposed to resemble him so closely did. He then signed for his first high-profile club, Marseille, as a 25-year-old and was a near-geriatric 26 when Chelsea secured his services.

Forlán on the other hand was playing top-flight football at a young age; in his late teens he moved to Argentinian club Independiente where an impressive goalscoring record of 37 strikes in 80 appearances attracted the attentions of Manchester United. However the Uruguayan was to endure a largely disappointing period in England. His subsequent success with Villareal, Atletico Madrid and Uruguay suggest that, even with a wealth of experience behind him, the move to a high-profile club in one of Europe’s top leagues had come too soon. While his Manchester United experience may have had some impact on Forlán’s growth as a player, it was in the less heady climes of Villareal that he truly began to blossom in Europe.

Kaká is the one player of the three who was able to carry precocious teenage promise over to European top-flight football without seemingly skipping a beat. Swiftly establishing himself as a key component of  Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan, first as the main supply line to Andriy Shevchenko, and then, following the Ukrainian’s departure in 2006, as the attack’s focal point, as Milan took the Champions league in 2007. Kaká went on to win the Ballon d’or and the World Player of the Year awards, and to supplant Ronaldinho as the central conduit of Brazil’s creativity. However, though it began brilliantly, Kaká’s career may end in rather more modest fashion, as the hectic schedule of the modern day footballer seems to have taken its toll on a man who, still shy of his 29th birthday, should not yet be in the twilight of his career. However, after a suprisingly indifferent first season in Spain, the Brazilian has endured an injury-plagued second. Speculation is rife that Kaká is struggling to come to terms with the need to adapt his game to cope with the loss of speed and acceleration that more customarily compromises players the other side of 30.

Kaká feigns joy in Reals colours

The broader lesson for Chelsea, and other wealthy clubs looking to poach talent from around the world, is that gambles don’t always pay off. Piazón and Mascia may well turn out to be superstars, but surely it is too early to tell. And while Lukaku may be enjoying first-team football in Belgium, is there not the danger that a precocious start to his career may betoken similarly early loss of his effectiveness? Speculation has been rife in the premier league this season about the premature end of Wayne Rooney’s career. Rooney has recently been coming back into form after a largely indifferent 12-month period, but the fact that at that the age of 25 he has been playing Premiership football for nearly a decade surely suggests that the physical and phychological demands of the game may already have left their mark on the young England striker. The same could be argued of the struggling Fernando Torres.

The trouble may partly be that the wealthiest clubs in the world seem barely aware that the boys and young men for whose skills they are bidding are also human beings. Many a career has been derailed by the urge of the biggest clubs to stockpile players, lest one of their rivals get him. Chelsea were so desperate to keep French teenage prodigy Gaël Kakuta out of rival hands that they risked a two-year transfer ban (which was later overturned) to sign him. The teenager then went on to provide a glimpse of the remarkable talent that Chelsea had so dearly coveted, only to disappear from view altogether. This January he was loaned out to Fulham, but so far has only made four appearances and left Chelsea fans scratching their heads. Manchester United’s Federico Macheda was loaned out to Sampdoria at the same time, and has chalked up an unexceptional three appearances to date. These of course are players whose names are known to the general public because of the fanfare their arrivals generated. There are countless more languishing in reserve squads all over Europe, players with the skill to make it as professionals but whose development has stagnated at a crucial stage because élite clubs can afford to play the percentages under the assumption that even if only one or two of these players becomes a star, they will have done well. The rest can either be cut loose or sold to smaller clubs, at a profit, after the players in question have perhaps lost the momentum necessary to propel themselves into a career at the top.

Fundamentally football revolves around money. The financial strength of the European game draws players to it from around the world, and such is the strength of English football that it is able to draw players to it from even within Europe. Matters may change. The resurgent Brazilian economy, while not offering domestic clubs financial parity with Europe’s wealthiest, has meant that the best players can be robustly remunerated. Consequently a host of stars including Ronaldinho, Luis Fabiano, and Deco, have recently returned to Brazil’s shores without a significant drop in salary. It also meant that Chelsea were thwarted in their attempts to bring starlet Neymar to London last year as the young striker’s club, Santos, were able to offer a wage increase large enough to tempt him to stay. Neymar may well depart this year, but at least he now has another year of first-team football under his belt.

Perhaps the three teenagers in question will not only develop into stars but remain in football’s stratosphere for the duration of their careers. Tim Vickery’s latest blog post happens to be about Lucas Piazón’s transfer to Chelsea, and makes for an interesting read. He suggests that the striker’s impressive achievements may be linked to his precocious physical maturity, an advantage he may lose as his agemates catch up with him. Still, it would be churlish to wish all three anything but the best. Let’s hope that success hasn’t come too soon for them and that the European giants so desperate for their signatures are motivated by something other than greed.

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