Birth of the Baby Footballer: At What Age Can You Spot True Sporting Talent?

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Birth of the Baby Footballer: At What Age Can You Spot True Sporting Talent?
Luis Bagu/Getty Images

At what age can you spot genuine footballing talent? Renowned scout Paulo Cardoso famously discovered Cristiano Ronaldo at the tender age of 11 for Sporting Lisbon's Academy. But Belgian club FC Racing Boxberg have taken it one step further, signing 20-month-old Bryce Brites in October last year, as per the Metro.

Is this blindly optimistic, or can you really spot signs of footballing magic at such a young age?

Dany Vodnik, FC Racing Boxberg's club secretary, remains adamant his faith has been rightly placed in the child prodigy. When speaking to Dutch newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, he said:

Bryce kicks a ball in a way you do not even see when playing drills with four or five year olds. His ball control is incredible for his age. The way he dribbles with the ball at his feet between the cones, he can give a pass to the left or right. You ask him to kick a ball three or five meters and he does so.

Amazingly, although Bryce is the most recent pint-sized star, he doesn't actually hold the record for the youngest professional footballer in history. That particular accolade goes to Dutch footballer Baerke van der Meij, who signed for VVV-Venlo back in 2011 at only 18 months old, as per Goal.com.

Baerke shot to fame after his farther posted a clip online of the toddler quite impressively shooting three balls into his toy box. The clip has since gained over a million hits on YouTube.

In a press release (via Goal.com), VVV-Venlo addressed Baerke's future at the club and specifically made reference to the genetic advantage they believe he possesses from his grandfather, who previously played for the Dutch club:

The toddler’s favourite position has not yet been determined. However, we can speak of a right-footed player with a very good kicking technique, perseverance and, importantly, football genes via his grandfather.

 

An Argument For Very Young Talent Identification

A study conducted at the University of Southern Denmark and published in the Sociology of Sport Journal may support a club's decision to spend their valuable funds on players too young to comprehend what football even is.

Researcher Mette Krogh Christensen set out to challenge the commonly held assumption that talent identification is an objective and rational process, and interviewed eight national youth coaches. What she found was coaches identify talent in three ways.

The first means of identifying talent relates to a coach's subjective assessment of a player's patterns of movement. The second criterion relates to a coach's preference for so-called "autotelic" players, those who coaches believe have the potential to learn and improve. Thirdly, the study concluded that talent is "socially configured" and the coaches themselves serve as "arbiters of taste."

Put more simply, the study claims that the idea of talent is completely subjective and at the whim of coaches who decide what constitutes talent and what doesn't at any moment in time.

 

An Argument Against Very Young Talent Identification  

Research from scientists at the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University disagrees with talent identification so young. In a multidisciplinary approach to talent identification, they concluded:

The most discriminating of the measures were agility, sprint time, ego orientation and anticipation skill. The elite players were also significantly leaner, possessed more aerobic power and were more tolerant of fatigue.

At 18 and 20 months old and judging by both videos, I'm not sure what Bryce or Baerke's maximal sprint time, body fat percentage or resistance to fatigue is like, and I'm not sure FC Racing Boxberg or VVV-Venlo would know either. But then again, maybe the Belgians and the Dutch know something I don't.

Belgium, for instance, has become a hotbed of talent in recent years with stars such as Romelu Lukaku, Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Christian Benteke and Thomas Vermaelen all emerging from the small European country.

Plus, the coaching styles and systems of the Netherlands have long been copied by the rest of the world with many believing they hold the blueprint for developing young talent. Maybe they're just both starting their 2026 World Cup preparations incredibly early. 

Personally, I believe talent identification is subjective. But I also believe there's a fine line between genius and madness—only time will tell on which side of the line the signings of Bryce Brites and Baerke van der Meij fall.

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