In June, Shakhtar Donetsk forward Fred made his home debut for Brazil in a friendly against Mexico in Sao Paulo, having performed creditably as a substitute in away friendlies against Turkey and Austria. To widespread confusion, he was booed. His crime? Well, there wasn’t one, other than that he shared his name with Fred, a center forward who had been made a scapegoat for Brazil’s poor showing at the World Cup a year earlier. Brazilian fans–sufficient to get a significant spell of booing together–simply didn’t know who he was.
Fred was one of 12 players in Brazil’s 23-man squad at the Copa America who has played fewer than 50 games in the Brazilian league. Yes, it says something about the insularity of Brazilian fans, particularly those in Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, that they misidentified a player who had had a couple of decent season with the Porto Alegre club Internacional, but there is a wider point, and that is the extraordinary stockpiling of players that goes on at the biggest European clubs.
It’s gone almost unnoticed that Chelsea have made seven signings this summer. There’s the obvious four–Pedro, Asmir Begovic, Abdul Rahman Baba and Falcao (on loan)–but there were also three teenagers: Kenedy, a second striker bought from Fluminense for £6 million; Nathan, an attacking midfielder signed from Atletico Paranaense for £3.15 million; and Danilo Pantic, an attacking midfielder bought on a free transfer from Partizan Belgrade. Kenedy remains at the club, training at Cobham, but the other two have been shipped off to Vitesse Arnhem on loan, where they join three other Chelsea players–Dominic Solanke, Lewis Baker and Isaiah Brown.
In total there are a staggering 31 Chelsea players (and counting) out on loan. Some remain in England–Victor Moses is at West Ham, Patrick Bamford is at Crystal Palace, Christian Atsu at Bournemouth and Tomas Kalas at Middlesbrough, for instance–while others have been sent further afield: Marko Marin, for instance, the diminutive Germany winger who was signed from Werder Bremen in 2012 and has largely been forgotten about since, is at Trabzonspor.
Marin, in fact, can be seen as the start of the curse of the Chelsea right winger, a blight whose victims continue to mount, even if the early signs are that Pedro may be immune. Kevin De Bruyne and Andre Schurrle have both been sold, but Mohamed Salah (Roma) and Juan Cuadrado (Juventus) are still Chelsea players out on loan.
There’s nothing wrong in what Chelsea (and other clubs–Chelsea just happen to be the most proactive Premier League club in this regard: Arsenal has 12 out on loan, Manchester City nine, Liverpool nine and Manchester United just three) is doing; it’s perfectly with in the regulations. In fact, in football’s present economic climate, it seems a wholly logical thing to do: sign a player cheaply young and then, even if he doesn’t end up play for you, a combination of the luster of the club name, the improvement he makes under your coaches and the experience he gains while out on loan should mean that his price rises and you make a profit (particularly given the club that is borrowing the player usually pays the wages).
“We think this is the best way to go,” said Chelsea’s technical director Michael Emenalo. “We identified that for young players, the ages of 18 to 21 are the most difficult time as they wonder if they are good enough for the Chelsea first team and what is next for them. We felt it is better for them at that age to go on loan to somewhere where they get visibility and good competition. For psychological and physical reasons that is the best thing to do at that age.”
But that’s not to say there aren’t problems. To start with, there’s something a little uncomfortable about the whole notion of trading in people–especially when it's clear that many of those signed will never actually play for Chelsea. And then there is the danger of possible conflicts of interest: Vitesse is unlikely ever to be in the same competition as Chelsea, but the whole notion of one club having tentacles that reach across Europe is troubling (not that that situation doesn’t occur anyway with agents).
And then there’s the issue of what stockpiling does for competition, accelerating the rush to the top. A club like Chelsea would once have had a squad of perhaps 20 senior players; now 50 isn’t uncommon. That club no longer has to think about how a player will fit in, or whether he’ll get pitch time, because he can always be sent out on loan. That in turn means that those players are not being nurtured in an environment that is giving next to no thought to their long-term well-being, while the second-tier clubs that might once have given them a home are denied their talents, increasing the gulf between them and the top.
It’s a subject that has begun to concern UEFA president Michel Platini.
"It is not possible that the best teams would have all the best players or competition itself is finished," he said. "We have to think about football in all of Europe, not only in two or three clubs."
Being concerned is one thing, working out a way of discouraging such stockpiling is far harder.