Okay, most of you folks around here think that soccer is “that foreigners’ sport” at best, and some sort of communist plot to undermine America at worst.
It’s neither of those, as many of you have finally realized. But it’s far from perfect, and sometimes it’s just plain bizarre. It’s not so much what happens on the pitch — uh, the field — but off it.
That was proved Monday, when the Associated Press reported that Real Madrid, the top team in Spain and one of the major powerhouses in all of European soccer, had signed a kid from Argentina named Leonel Angel Coira.
Coira shares his name with Lionel Messi, one of the all-time great forwards in the game and a stalwart of the Argentine national team. Messi, who’s a household name throughout much of the world, plays his club soccer for Barcelona, one of Real Madrid’s arch-rivals. Coira played his youth ball for a team called Newell’s Old Boys, the farm system from which Messi grew to prominence and whose top-level team has won six Argentine club championships over the years.
The catch? Coira is seven years old.
We pause at this point to scratch our head in wonder and say, “Wait, what?”
I repeat: Leonel Angel Coira is a whopping seven years old. He’s young enough to have literally been named after Messi, since the latter gained fame around the turn of the century. And they are both nicknamed Leo.
By way of comparison, let’s say the New York Yankees came to Gardendale and signed some kid off the 7-year-old Dizzy Dean All-Stars team to a minor league contract.
So why did Real sign a kid who isn’t that far away from having a security blanket?
Because if they didn’t, Atletico Madrid — the Mets, if you consider Real to be the Yankees — were about to beat them to it.
Messi himself was signed to Barcelona as an 11-year-old, when the club’s equivalent to a chief scout wrote out a contract on a paper napkin, the only paper handy at the time. That worked out pretty well, to say the least.
But still, seven years old? Kids that age who play soccer around these parts usually run to the sidelines bawling if someone scores a goal against them.
I know that most soccer clubs have extensive youth academies, as they are called, where they groom young prodigies to play on the sport’s biggest stage. It’s very much like baseball’s farm system. Even teams in Major League Soccer, our country’s top professional level, have such systems.
But to the best of my knowledge, no American club has signed a player yet who is still young enough to think girls are icky and worms are cool.
We’ve come close, though.
Freddie Adu was signed by D.C. United at the tender age of 14, and scored a goal in his third game. When he entered his first game as a substitute, he became the youngest player to play at the top level of any American professional sport in more than a century. (Of the four major sports, the late Joe Nuxhall had the youngest debut, pitching for the Cincinnati Reds at age 15 during World War II, when players were scarce.)
Adu had his chance to go pro earlier, then Italian power Inter Milan tried to sign him at age 10. His mother wisely declined.
But compared to Coira, Adu is positively elderly.
I know pro sports are young players’ games, by and large, and the speed and agility needed in soccer is most evident in teens, if not the knowledge of the game’s finer points.
But age seven? Really?
C’mon, let the kid play in the dirt.