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31 January 2023

The unstoppable rise of football’s nepo babies

Even the game’s players are becoming an oligarchy.

By Josh Mcloughlin

In his 2004 autobiography My Side, David Beckham said his parents “taught me that, if you really want something, you have to work hard for it”.

Despite his father’s wisdom, Beckham’s eldest son Brooklyn has become a poster boy for “nepo babies”: talentless children breezing into coveted jobs, their careers lubricated by parental connections and unfettered by the need to accumulate boring, time-consuming qualities like experience or basic competence. Brooklyn was ridiculed for his photography (he landed a job with Burberry, which definitely had nothing to do with his mum being Victoria Beckham) and cooking (which definitely had nothing to do with his father’s best friend being Gordon Ramsay).

Meanwhile Romeo, David and Victoria’s middle son, recently signed for the B team of Premier League football club Brentford. He’s on loan from Inter Miami, the Major League Soccer club owned by his father and managed by David’s close friend and former Manchester United teammate Phil Neville – whose son Harvey plays there as a right back.

Jobs for the boys aren’t new in football. Darren Ferguson, son of Alex, joined Manchester United’s youth team when his dad took charge of the club. Darren won a Premier League title without playing a game after November in the 1992-93 season, before spending most of his career at Wrexham, bouncing between the third and fourth tiers of English football. In the 1990s Harry Redknapp gave his son Jamie and his nephew Frank Lampard their senior debuts at Bournemouth and West Ham respectively.

But footballing nepotism is accelerating. When Lionel Messi moved to PSG in 2021, the World Cup winner’s sons Thiago and Mateo transferred to the Parisian club’s academy from La Masia, the renowned academy of their dad’s previous club Barcelona. Cristiano Ronaldo Jr played for the youth teams of Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United, moving when his father did. Zinedine Zidane’s eldest son Enzo joined Juventus’s youth set-up when his dad started playing for the Italian giants at the turn of millennium, and then Real Madrid’s academy when his father moved to Spain. Zidane’s other sons, Luca, Elyaz and Theo, were part of the Madrid youth set-up after Zinedine started coaching at the club in 2013.

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The list goes on. Justin Kluivert came through the academy at Ajax when his father and club legend Patrick was a youth team coach there in 2016. Giovanni Simeone, now playing for Serie A giants Napoli, joined River Plate’s youth team just as his father Diego Simeone took over the first team. Isaac Drogba came through the prestigious academy at Chelsea, where his father Didier played for a decade. The sons of Gheorghe Hagi, Andy Cole, Henrik Larsson, Paolo Maldini, Jürgen Klinsmann, Tony Pulis, Steve Bruce, Roberto Mancini and many others have been signed to clubs their father’s coached or played for.

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It’s a concerning trend because football has traditionally prided itself on being a catalyst for social mobility. In June 2022, the football journalist and author Simon Kuper wrote in the Financial Times: “Elite football is a meritocracy” because “quality trumps CV, looks or skin colour”. It’s true that the most talented footballers usually end up at the best clubs, win the most trophies, and earn the most money. Egalitarianism might even be football’s last remaining shred of moral high ground – though sports-washing, scandals and corruption are fast eroding the game’s reputation.

Praise has been lavished on south London, which in 2020 supplied 14 per cent of the English-born players in the Premier League. South of the River, a 2022 docuseries presented by Peckham-raised Rio Ferdinand, tracked the fortunes of young players seeking to emulate local heroes Wilfried Zaha, Joe Gomez, Jadon Sancho, Emile Smith Rowe and Tammy Abraham. One boy made clear that football represents a golden ticket out of an otherwise hopeless situation: “Either you go in that gang life, or you go in that football life.”

But this meritocracy is under serious threat when well-connected boys are parachuted into academies. The problem is not so much one of under-served success as opportunity. If a player is not good enough, he’ll eventually be shipped out, no matter his connections. But just getting that chance is an extraordinary privilege and a grossly unfair advantage. Academy places are limited and competition is exceptionally fierce, with children scouted from around the age of six or seven. It requires dogged hard work, preternatural ability and a massive slice of luck to stand out from the crowd on the day a scout comes to watch a game at your school or amateur club. It requires far less effort to be signed by your dad.

Every academy place given to a player or manager’s son is one taken away from local boys in greater need of the opportunity. Romeo Beckham can bounce back if it doesn’t work out for him. But for working-class young men who’ve poured years into football at the expense of everything else, the stakes are vertiginous, the margins vanishingly slim, the odds already against them. Ninety-seven per cent of former elite academy players fail to play a game in the Premier League. Every single place matters.

With football’s depressing descent into oligarchy, perhaps the spread of familial patronage networks – the modus operandi of the mega-rich since time immemorial – was inevitable. Players of the 1990s and 2000s, who grew wealthy as football became the world’s most popular and lucrative sport, spent their careers watching managers, owners and governing body officials strike dodgy deals. Today, they’re in positions of power as coaches and sporting directors.

Meritocracy still holds – for now. But in 15 or 20 years, the names on the backs of shirts at Europe’s top clubs might have a dispiritingly familiar ring.

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