Football: Argentina a hotbed of talent for Europe

BUENOS AIRES - Football has become a huge export industry for World Cup finalists Argentina with Lionel Messi the leader of a huge flock of talent that has fled abroad to seek riches.

Argentina have some of the cream of global football stars. But only three of Argentina's World Cup squad of 23 are with Argentinian clubs, most like Messi (Barcelona), Angel di Maria (Real Madrid) and Sergio Aguero (Manchester City) are earning their millions in Spain, Italy and England's Premier League.

None of the team that started the semi-final against the Netherlands is with an Argentinian club. Maxi Rodriguez, who came on as a substitute is with Newell's Old Boys, having ended his European playing days.

By comparison, only seven of the 23-man squad for Germany, the South Americans' opponents in Sunday's final, are with foreign clubs.

Few Argentines have ever seen the country's best players in the struggling domestic Primera Division, which has turned exporting young talent into an industry.

Argentina's dismal economy since its 2001 debt crisis has fuelled the growth of such deals, which can bring cash-strapped clubs tens of millions of euros.

But as its stars have moved abroad, Argentina's domestic league has faded. The country has also lost its dominance in the Copa Libertadores, the biggest prize in the South American club game.

Argentinian teams have won the cup 22 times, more than any other country - but just twice in the last decade (Boca Juniors in 2007 and Estudiantes in 2009).

Some of the country's most storied clubs have entered humiliating slumps. River Plate and Independiente de Avellaneda, two of the so-called "Big Five" of Argentine football, have both recently been relegated to the second-tier Nacional B league.

Argentines are desperate to see their country win their third World Cup final on Sunday at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium. It would be their first title since the legendary Diego Maradona led the national side to victory in 1986 in Mexico.

Today Messi is the poster boy for Argentine football. But he was spotted by Barcelona's talent scouts when he was 11 years old.

The club offered to pay US$900 (S$1,117) a month for the diminutive young phenomenon to undergo growth-hormone treatment if he moved to Spain.

The investment paid off massively for Barca, which has won three Champions League titles and six national championships with a team including the four-time world player of the year.

Shine from afar

Messi never played professionally in his home country. Other Argentine stars have started in local football but soon moved to Europe.

That was the case for Aguero, who started at Independiente at the age of 15 and was bought by Atletico Madrid at 18 for 23 million euros (S$38.3 million).

Gonzalo Higuain played one year for River Plate, then was bought by Real Madrid at 19 years old for 12 million euros.

Angel Di Maria started playing for Rosario Central at 17, then signed with Benfica in Lisbon two years later.

And the hero of Argentina's semi-final against the Netherlands, keeper Sergio Romero, left Racing Club de Avellaneda at 20 years old to sign with Dutch side AZ Alkmaar.

Romero now has a contract with Sampdoria but is on loan with Monaco in the French league where he struggles to get a regular game.

Argentine fans largely discover their stars with the rest of the world when they succeed in Europe and start playing for the national team.