South America has produced more than its share of soccer superstars. The soccer giant Real Madrid is banking on Leonel Angel Coira of Argentina to become one of them. Last week the club signed the soccer prodigy to a one-year contract. When the contract expires, young Leonel will be all of 8 years old.
"Well everyone's looking for the next big thing," Tim Stannard, who writes for the soccer publication FourFourTwo, tells Weekend Edition guest host John Ydstie.
Stannard says Lionel Messi from Barcelona, who some would call the best soccer player in the world, was signed at the age of 13. He was in the youth academy and made his debut at 17.
"It's a low-cost gamble. Of course, there is cost involved in looking after the kids, coaching them over the years," he says, "but whether you want to keep the player to become a home-grown superstar, it's priceless, or indeed if you eventually end up selling on the player, it can be an enormous benefit on your investment."
Leonel will not get paid as part of his contract. Stannard says he will be educated as normal and then head to the Real Madrid training center with 200 other kids. Beneath its famous first team, Real Madrid has under-18s, under-17s and under-16s.
Even if they don't make it to the first team, the young soccer players can still make a good career out of the sport, Stannard says. They may have a shot at another club or lower down the leagues.
"Barcelona and Real Madrid and a club like Manchester United are the three biggest, most famous and best clubs in the world, so to get to the very top is immensely difficult," he says.
Signing on promising young soccer players, Stannard says, can be a lucrative business for smaller clubs.
"If you sign a youngster at the age of 10, 11, 12, bring him up, you can actually sell him on perhaps at the age of 18, 19, 20 for a huge profit," he says. "In fact, that's actually how some clubs survive."
The word "exploitation" doesn't come up much, Stannard says, but he says it is seen as very tough for the young players who get rejected.
"[Managers] do say the hardest job in the world is when they have to bring in youngsters into their office and say, 'Sorry, you've been with us six, seven years, you're not going to make it in our first team.'"