I had one important question for the African player I was about to sign to our agency.
“How old are you?” I asked, over dinner in a restaurant when we’d all but done the deal.
He was a professional footballer and he laughed and then said: “You want my passport age or real age?”
“Both,” I said.
“23 and 28,” he replied. I wasn’t hugely surprised. I’d heard stories about him fiddling his age and he wouldn’t have been the first African player to do it.
Often, it’s not even their fault. They come from countries where people are out for one thing with regards to their future: money. So they give an age to suit – or rather those representing them do in the hope of a better sale. There are more players in the market for a 29-year-old than a 33-year-old.
I had one player, a really big name. At 17, he was named joint player of the tournament in a really big competition. The player he won it with would also become famous and play at the top level. My player was reading an interview a decade later when he saw that the player who was supposed to be his age was suddenly two years younger than him.
I met one big name Premier League manager and he told us of a player he referred to as his ‘soldier’. He said he was “at least four years” older than what he actually admitted to. That would stand to reason given how his subsequent career panned out.
I’ve come across several stories of Brazilian players giving the wrong age, too. They might be from very poor backgrounds and the first time they’re required to get a passport is when they leave the country to play football. A year of two can be shaved off then.
I’m writing about the age of players because I’m preparing to watch the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Chile in a few weeks and there are several African countries represented. I suspect that they’ll be more physical than some of their rivals and do better than predicted. I also suspect that one stand out African player will sign for a big European club who’ve been dazzled by his tournament performances…and then fail to live up to expectations.
Three of my players are there representing three different countries. I’ll see them; see their parents and their coaches. It’s about networking and having presence. If you’re not there, then someone will be trying to move in on your players.
Deals will be done too, usually over a few drinks. I’ve sold more players in a nightclub at 1am than in an office 12 hours earlier. It’s one reason the Italian agents are so slick, they’re great socialisers.
I’ve also got my eyes on a few potential players. Most of those good enough to be in that tournament will already have an agent, so I’ve been trying to get to players before it starts. I’ve been researching two players from a country a long way away for eight months.
I can’t just go up to them in Chile and try to sign them; we don’t even speak the same language. But I have an agent in their country and we’ve paired up; we’ll meet in Chile. I’ve got access to European markets which he hasn’t, I can get a player on trial at a club – and unless he’s a young Lionel Messi, almost every player will have to go on trial.
The players I’m looking at were born in 1998 – that’s how scouts and people in football refer to players, the year they were born. I’ll watch two or three of them as many times as I can in a real game situation against tough opponents. You’re looking at their attributes, how they handle themselves, their size, positioning and speed. By being there you’ll hear any ‘talk’ about players, whether they have an attitude problem or a dodgy agent for example.
It’s impossible for one person to scout a full game of football, there’s no way you can watch at least 22 players with the kind of attention that is needed. And you need to scout them so that you are convinced of their quality. If all goes to plan, you’re going to invest a lot of time with them and there’s a risk that you’ll never get paid for your time. And by going to Chile, I’ll already have invested a lot of time and money. But I wouldn’t be going if I didn’t think it was worth it.
I remember one time feeling tired and doubtful about making a journey to a small country in Europe to see a player, then 17. I did, I got on well with him and later persuaded him that I was the right man to represent him. He agreed and two or three moves later, he’s now an established Premier League player. I hope he doesn’t miss me while I’m away in Chile.