A game for all ages!

A game for all ages!

Route to the goal is a learning curve, from seven to seventy

battle ready Tom Cleverley (right) has worked his way up the ranks to the Manchester United team after joining the youth programme as a 15-year-old. AFP

The connection is there for all to see. Leonel Angel Coira, the kid recruited by Real, has his own Facebook page, showing off his cherubic grin as he visits the training ground of Madrid’s legends.

Apparently the club had to move fast because its neighbour and rival, Atletico Madrid, was also eyeing the prodigy.

Meanwhile, Alex Ferguson, knighted for his services to soccer, was caught on camera the moment his team, United, scored a late goal to win the Community Shield, the traditional curtain raiser to the English soccer season, last Sunday.

Ferguson hopped, skipped, and fell into the embrace of his assistant coaches.
He was at that moment a child again. His joy was as spontaneous, as child-like, as any that young Leonel will ever display in his career.

 What particularly thrilled Ferguson was that his team had come from two goals down to beat its own noisy neighbor, Manchester City, at London’s Wembley Stadium. It was, in the end, something that Ferguson never tires of in his game. He loves winning.

He loves players who never give up. And he loves telling the world how marvellously young his boys are.

One of the major performances in United’s comeback win was Tom Cleverley. He was given his first team debut at half time, when the score was 2-0 against the Reds.

Cleverley has been at United since he was 15. He came through the academy, seen as a prospect who might one day replace Paul Scholes, the play-maker to the team that has dominated English, and occasionally European soccer for the past decade.

Scholes retired a week ago. Ferguson has scoured the world for a replacement and has been looking, hard, at Inter Milan’s Dutch midfield creator, Wesley Sneijder. But Sneijder would cost a fortune, in fees and in salary. Half a game, admittedly a half in which Cleverley’s touch and timing and vision played a conspicuous part in United’s outplaying City, can surely not equal what Sneijder has achieved in the sport. The Dutchman is a European Champions League winner, and a World Cup finalist.

Product of youth system

What is Cleverley? A product of United’s youth system that was providing great names even before Ferguson became the club’s manager and coach. Fergie’s eye for a player is world renowned, and he shows no sign of vacating the supposed pressure seat as he starts his 25th season in charge.

The players, he finds, keep his mind young. Retirement scares him rigid.  His question now is has he missed a trick? Is Tom Cleverley the answer to his midfield needs — and an answer that has been growing beneath his nose all these years? Cleverley turns 22 years old on Friday. He knew he would have to wait because Scholes and ...Ryan Giggs were going nowhere until their bodies started to rebel against the demands of modern soccer.

So United loaned him out to gain first team experience with three clubs Ferguson trusted to help develop him — Leicester City, Watford and Wigan Athletic. It was during the summer tour last month of the United States that Cleverley began to look as if he might have grown into the part for United.

If he has, he will save the club more than 50 million pounds, or more than $80 million. He will keep an old man smiling. And it will have taken Cleverley just seven years to mature into first team contention.

That, of course, is the entire time that Leo Coira has existed. The boy, of course, is a fan of Leo Messi, his countryman made world famous at Barcelona. Coira’s family moved to Madrid four years ago when his father was offered work there. And the father was apparently far from worried about his child’s being exposed to publicity – the story came out when the family spoke to a magazine in Argentina last week.

“It looks good when I say it,” said Mr Coira. “I’m the father, but I’m excited to see how Leo plays with the ball.”

The deal, according to the family, is that the boy starts off training with Real’s “Benjamin” squad, its Under-9’s. Travelling expenses are reimbursed but, they say, no other remuneration is likely to be discussed until the prodigy is 16, the legal age at which he can turn professional in Spain.

Sixteen, as most soccer followers know, is the age at which Arsenal persuaded Cesc Fabregas, a child of Barcelona’s famed academy, to leave and build his career in London. Now Barca wants him back, and Fabregas wants to go back. It will cost 65 million euros, or $93 million – the fee Arsenal seeks – for the now 24-year-old to return to his teaching ground.

Coira, Cleverley and Fabregas are all in the same game. They are born with talents that big clubs covet. They are trained at ever younger ages by, supposedly, the best youth trainers in the business. They reach maturity at different times in life if, as players, they reach it at all.

Fabregas was ready for senior professional action soon after he arrived at Arsenal. Cleverley might just have grown into his skills at a club that gives youth a chance, but still has to demonstrate the combination of talent and temperament required at that level.

And Coira? Who knows where his precocity might take him? Real Madrid has a habit of ignoring its youth to buy the finished products of other clubs. It paid Manchester United a record sum equivalent to $132 million to acquire Cristiano Ronaldo two years ago. But each year, Madrid reassesses its child stars. A few get invited back year on year.  Many more drop out, or are pushed out. Their chances might be no greater than the survival rate of tadpoles in an overstocked pond.

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