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Soccer power Real Madrid signs ... a s 7-year-old?

Photo by Leonel Angel Coira's Family

Photo by Leonel Angel Coira's Family

MADRID -- He has a contract with one of football's biggest clubs and the same long, floppy hair and nickname Leo of his idol, Lionel Messi.

It may take awhile, however, before Leonel Angel Coira can match the wondrous Messi: He is 7 years old.

Real Madrid said Monday it signed the Argentine prodigy to its youth academy after seeing him in tryouts. He will start training with Madrid's youth team Sept 6.

Coira hopes to follow the path set by Messi, a countryman who joined Barcelona from the Argentine club Newell's Old Boys as a teenager and has gone on to win the World Player of the Year award two times.

"(My) dream is to meet Messi, play in the first division with Madrid and for Argentina in the World Cup," Coira told the Spanish newspaper ABC.

The signing underscores the tactics of top teams scooping up fresh talent as early as possible to avoid paying huge transfer fees when their potential blossoms. And the Spanish football power didn't have to look as far as Argentina to find this gem.

Coira's family moved to Madrid three years ago after his father, Miguel, was offered a job in the Spanish capital. Miguel Coira coaches a local youth club where Leonel played and first caught the eye of a Madrid scout.

The 7-year-old was then invited to a trial with Madrid and signed a one-year contract with the club's youngest team, the "Benjamin" squad, made up of mostly under-9 players.

Madrid reportedly made the push to sign Coira because Atletico Madrid was also pursuing the youngster.

"After tryouts with both clubs, he felt more comfortable with (Real) Madrid," Miguel Coira told ABC. "I trust the club a lot. I know they will take good care of him."

Club spokesman Juan Tapiador said Coira wasn't the youngest player ever to sign with Madrid, although he couldn't name anyone younger. He said players of any age can join Real Madrid, with one stipulation.

"They only have to be a standout," he said. "We look for something different, that quality or talent that makes them stand out from the rest."

Signing children is nothing new in football, where almost every professional club has an extensive youth academy -- like Barcelona's famous "La Masia," where dozens of young players live and train from the age of 11. Coira even looks downright old compared to the 18-month-old toddler that Dutch club VVV Venlo signed to a largely symbolic 10-year contract this year after seeing his ability to kick a football.

While many of the young talents never develop into professional players, clubs are constantly hoping to strike gold with the next Messi, who has already helped Barcelona win 15 trophies, including three Champions League titles and five Spanish league championships.

Miguel Coira said his family receives no financial compensation from Madrid, but the team does "pay for transport."

"The contract is for one year and if everything works out it can be renewed for another," he said. "When he is 16 years old, he can play in the first division and then the terms are different."

The Real Madrid youth squad will play in a league of seven-a-side teams in Madrid, which also includes Real's cross-city rival, Atletico. The youth squad usually has about 18 players split into two teams. Every year, the club reviews each player's development and a decision is made on whether he should continue.

Madrid has dozens of scouts on its payroll scouring the capital for the next great star, and many more across Spain and other countries.

"It is an important network for capturing talent," Tapiador said, adding that scouts draw up reports on possible targets and confer with youth coaches on which players to approach and possibly sign.

Goalkeeper and senior team captain Iker Casillas, for example, began training with Madrid's youth system when he was 9.

Last week, Coira told the Argentine sports daily Ole that his favorite move is the "cano" -- a difficult dribbling maneuver in which the ball is passed between the legs of an opponent. He prefers to "provide the pass" rather than score.

Coira has a Facebook page featuring photos of his visit to Real Madrid. He also has an older brother who plays for the Spanish team Real Valladolid.

Juanjo Montaner, a spokesman for the Spanish professional players association, told The Associated Press that Coira is not a member of the group and there is no organization that represents the interests of youth players.

"Obviously, he is not affiliated," he said. "He must be in the top three divisions, and no child is."