Kylian Mbappe made his debut for the French national team, at the tender age of 18. The young striker has had a stellar year, scoring 19 in 32 appearances; players with a decade more experience can’t boast numbers as impressive. As with any prospect making waves, Mbappe has attracted the attention of pretty much every single top, European club with deep pockets.
If we cast our minds back to last year, a Danish teenager was the name on everybody’s lips. Martin Odegaard, now 18 himself, signed from lowly Stromgodset to Real Madrid for around 4 million euros. Currently, Odegaard is on loan at Dutch outfit, Heerenveen, after a string of performances essentially revealed that he wasn’t quite ready for the top flight. Speaking to Time magazine, he speculated on the considerable hype surrounding him; “If you get carried away now, you won’t get far in 10 years. I’m supposed to be at my best then, not now. That I know.”
A reasonable answer, although not one that many youngsters seem to consistently stick to; they don’t appear to receive much guidance on the matter, either. The case can be made to say that, largely, the starlets who have signed for big clubs very early on are experiencing diminished playing time and stunted growth when structured growth and learning might do them more good.
By no means, is this always the case. Leo Messi came through the famed La Masia, and debuted for Barcelona as an 18-year old. However, spending so long in a youth team (alongside Messi’s supreme, unique natural gifts) is a very different experience to the one had by other youngsters picked up in their teenage years by foreign, parent clubs. Young players handed hefty contracts too soon have often gone on to struggle in living up to the hype surrounding them.
Freddy Adu, for example, was penned as the US’s top prospect of a generation; signing a MLS contract before he turned 17. Now 25, the American was shipped to 10 different teams in 8 different countries by his parent club, Benfica. Denilson, Joe Cole and Adriano are all players who were penned for almost guarenteed greatness, and suffered through the weight of expectation for immediate results. Poor management or failing to immediately impress can lead to premature decisions on players with years left to improve. Where limited game-time might be an issue for the very best youth talents, United’s Marcus Rashford being one, the pressure of expectation and common practice of frivolously loaning and selling on has repeatedly lead to under-achievement of even those not necessarily destined for greatness.
In an environment where money rules the game, and media attention is extensive enough to spread a story of untapped potential in a single evening, the mindset for players in the dawn of their careers is almost surely tested to an unnecessary extent. Where focussing on their
Rooney was not rushed through Everton’s youth team, or shipped to a larger side for a quick buck. Instead, he succeeded at every tier and proved himself, before hitting the first team. English clubs are often criticised for failing to manage players who either break the mould or show significant promise at an early age. The rare occasions in which young stars have been given the chance to blossom should be adhered to more often, and replicated.
Mbappe could be the next Thierry Henry if he continues to grow at this speed, proving all the speculation correct. His side, AS Monaco, are leading the league where you’d expect to see PSG, largely thanks to his contributions. The amount of game-time he receives has paid off for the club, and the fact he has 4 years of experience playing with the side since signing onto the youth team back in 2013, speaks volumes about gradual and considered youth development. His signing for Madrid, Chelsea or Juventus this summer would have the familiar feel of Deja vu.
It is a difficult time to be a young, promising footballer. The money, fame and mental conditioning will continue to unsettle and influence the system of development that should nurture its brightest talents. In a world of temptation, it is the stability of consistent and gradual development that will bring the best out of the world’s next generation of footballers. It is a reality that should be taken seriously, and clubs that can abide by it might begin to reap the same benefits that Monaco are enjoying now.
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