There are few things more exciting in football than a teenager exploding onto the scene. No wonder: these prodigies fulfil our wildest childhood fantasies of making the grade, of scoring a debut goal for our hometown club. Embracing the latest wonderkid is a form of vicarious wish fulfilment; it provides confirmation that, for some kids, magic is real.
Ansu Fati’s extraordinary debut ticked all the boxes, the 16-year-old’s goal after 110 seconds at the Nou Camp a fairytale moment met with a giddy media response. Comparisons with Lionel Messi abound, and yet there was another name that – aptly, ominously – appeared more commonly alongside Fati’s after the teenager broke his goalscoring record.
In May 2018, Bojan Krkic opened up to the Guardian’s Sid Lowe about his battle with anxiety, how his celebrity and the pressure to be the new Messi led to “a dizziness, feeling sick, constant, 24 hours a day”. Feeling increasingly isolated – “nobody wants to talk about it. Football’s not interested” – Bojan’s anxiety led to withdrawal from international tournaments and, ultimately, a career that couldn’t live up to the hype. Understandably the experience has left Bojan keen to help others when he eventually hangs up his boots. “Those of us who have feeling, who are sensitive, who can be affected, need a good shield,” he said. “Footballers are very young and they’re exposed.”
Bojan’s is not an unusual story, albeit an often untold one. Depression, anxiety and addictive behaviour are common among sportspeople (a 2014 study of top footballers suggested as many as one in four) and this is especially true of teenagers suddenly exposed to the intense scrutiny of the public eye – to the overwhelming pressure to fulfil ‘potential’ set by an over-excited fan base and media.
Footballers are too easily dehumanised, their emotional lives rarely considered by supporters angered by poor form or by clubs obsessed with financial gains. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to young people, most obviously the kids chewed up and spat out in elite academies – but also those break-out stars who promise so much.
Step back for a moment from the excitement about 16-year-old debutants. Look beyond how their precocious talents give them the appearance of maturity. They are children: children in a crucial stage of development being forced to cope with extraordinary external pressures. Exposure to the senior game should not be a question of talent, but of child protection.
#FFC’s Harvey Elliott could become the youngest Premier League player today, but what happened to the current record holder Matthew Briggs?
I’m making a @TalesFrom_ doc about his journey from his debut 12 yrs ago aged 16 – to where he is now..
Here’s a little taste
RTs welcome pic.twitter.com/e2cCFNBIpU
— Adam Leventhal (@AdamLeventhal) May 4, 2019
Personality development in adolescence is defined by ‘identity versus role confusion’, as theorised by the eminent developmental psychologist Erik Ericksen. Between the ages of 13 and 18 children begin formulating questions about the meaning of life and their place in the world, becoming acutely sensitive to the expectations of others; role confusion occurs when parental or societal pressure to conform clashes with their conscious search for identity, creating a weak and insecure sense of self. Social areas of the brain, particularly concerning how we are seen by others, are more heightened than at any other period of life. We’ve all been teenagers. We can all relate to that.
Emotional regulation, located in the prefontal cortex (the centre for complex cognitive behaviour), is one of the last areas to develop in humans – in the mid 20s – and so during adolescence most social activity is processed in the amygdala (the ‘animal’ brain, responsible for the fight/flight response) which is reactivated at this developmental stage. Consequently teenagers suffer from mood swings, sudden emotional eruptions, and difficulty comprehending complex social situations (the sort that adults would process in the prefontal cortex). The reactivation of the amygdala also makes them more impulsive, and vastly increases the drive for pleasure and risk-taking behaviours.
Doesn’t all of that – sensitivity to expectations; need for congruence in the search for personal meaning; inability to cope with social complexity; heightened emotional responses; dramatically increased risk-taking behaviour – make throwing them into the world of adult football seem cruel and negligent?
By all accounts Fati is coping well with his newfound fame – many footballers do, of course – while Ernesto Valverde has highlighted the need for Barcelona to ‘protect’ him. But Fati should not have been picked in the first place.
Children should not be playing senior football, and a more responsible governing body than FIFA would ban fielding under-18s. Yes, some are perfectly fine and make it to the top, but many others do not. Take a look at the list of youngest-ever starters in any of Europe’s major leagues and many of the names have long been forgotten. This could mean early exposure hinders careers as it did Bojan’s, or it could just mean that ability at 16 or 17 is a poor indicator of future ability. Either way, it tells us there’s no need to hurry players into the senior set-up; no need to rush their childhoods.
We shake our heads at parents who make Hollywood stars of their children and roll our eyes when addiction and depression emerge in their 20s, and yet we celebrate teenage footballers. As supporters, we need to ask ourselves why that is. Why throwing kids to the lions has become normalised – and why we care so much more about ‘giving young players a chance’ than we do about the potentially harmful effects of exposing children to such a cold and brutal industry.
Alex Keble – follow him on Twitter