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As Empoli's 16-year-old defender Alberto Massacci becomes the latest Italian kid to be snatched by Manchester United,'s Gil Gillespie calls for an immediate end to one of the games' most unscrupulous practices...

First there was Giuseppe Rossi and Arturo Lupoli in 2004. Then came Vincenzo Camilleri, Fabio Zamblera, Davide Petrucci and Federico Macheda. And now 16-year-old Empoli protégée Alberto Massacci has been snapped up by Manchester United, after impressing club scouts at an international youth tournament. 

The fee received by Empoli for the player is unknown. But, if it is anything like the amounts paid to Italian clubs for the youngsters who came before him, it is likely to be somewhere in the region of next to nothing.

“In life, a chance like this only comes past you once, and you’ve got to grab it with both hands,” said the clearly delighted Massacci, after receiving a personal phone call from Sir Alex Ferguson.  

Which is all very nice for the player and his family, although there has to be some reservations about his development as a player. But where does this leave Empoli, who have trained and nurtured his talent for many years, only to see all their good work and all their investment undone in one cynical swoop by a club that really should have more difficulty looking in the mirror?

Even more worryingly, especially if this drift of talent continues or even grows, where does this leave the future of Italian football?

Some of the blame for the poaching of young players lies with English clubs, many of whom seem to have completely dispensed with any notion of morality in their blind pursuit of success and profit.

Alex Ferguson, a man with an unquestionable background in political morality, seems strangely reluctant to talk about the issue. But he would, no doubt, point to European labour law and argue that inviting a 16-year-old to come and play at one of the biggest clubs in the world, on a salary that would make a professional golfer blush, is hardly the worst thing you can do to someone.

But that’s not the point. And, deep down, he knows it.

It is wrong, however, to point the finger of blame solely at England’s ruthless, super-rich big four. The reason that clubs such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea are able to sign up Calcio’s teenage superstars in waiting in the first place, is that the law in Italy prevents any club from securing any player on a contract until he is 18-years-old. The law is in place to protect minors but it is now, clearly, doing the opposite, with English clubs using increasingly questionable methods to prise youngsters away from their homes.

And UEFA President Michel Platini is not very happy about it.

"I have told the European Commission that we should ban the transfer of minors,” Platini announced last year.

"The first football contract that a player signs should be for club that trains them. It is important to protect our young people.

"I left for another country at 25. You don't need to leave at 15. It's to do with protecting social values, family values. There is no justification for buying them at 15, getting them over with parents, that is just not on," added the Frenchman.

But Platini made these comments a year ago and still nothing has changed.

So why, after already losing half of the potential Azzurri team for the 2014 World Cup, haven’t the Italian Government introduced legislation to stop the pilfering of the nations young talent from happening?

All they have to do is allow Italian clubs to put their youth team stars on contracts so that if any other club wants to buy them they will have to negotiate a proper transfer fee for the player. In an instant, this would put an end to the whole sorry situation.

Dutch club Ajax, interestingly, have already done this.

But the worry for Italian football is not merely an economic one.
The question that needs to be asked is this: will players such as Alberto Massacci continue to develop properly at their new Premier League homes?

Football in England is very different to the game in Italy, it is more frenetic, less tactical, less technical and far more physical. A player needs different qualities to succeed in the Premier League than he needs in Serie A.

So, when a talent like Roma 16-year-old Davide Petrucci, who was being hailed as the next Francesco Totti, comes to a club like Man United, he is likely to be trained to become more like a Premier League player and less like an Italian. When he moved to Old Trafford with a £90,000-a-year contract and the promise of a gardening job for his father, his progress as a player may well have taken a very big step in the wrong direction.

Palermo president Maurizio Zamperini has compared English clubs to “pirates taking treasures” and this is not far from the truth.

But expecting the Premier League’s big boys not to take advantage of the loophole in the law is a bit like asking the world’s major financial institutions to think about more than making a profit.

It just ain’t gonna happen, any time soon.

What are your views on this topic? wants to know what YOU think.

Gil Gillespie,