A lot is made about the professionalization of young athletes in America, but young U.S. phenoms have nothing on their Spanish and South American counterparts. If there were ever any doubts about that, they could safely be dispelled on Monday, when it was announced that Spanish soccer giants Real Madrid signed Argentine 7-year-old Leonel Angel Coira to a youth development contract.
"(My) dream is to meet Messi, play in the first division with Madrid and for Argentina in the World Cup," Coira told the Spanish newspaper ABC shortly after signing with his new club.
Of course, there are a number of reasons behind Real Madrid's rather surprising signing of Coira, who is pictured above. First, Real had learned of interest in the second-grader by crosstown rivals Atletico Madrid. That, in itself, is sometimes enough to push Real to make a premature move.
Then there's the 7-year-old's nickname: Leo. It goes without saying that the similarities with Barcelona superstar Leo Messi -- widely regarded as the current greatest player in the world -- don't stop there, either. Coira openly idolizes Messi, who also hails from Argentina but didn't leave the South American country until his teenage years.
Like Messi, Coira wears number 10. And like Messi, he dreams of starring for the Argentinian national team. They both already sport their own Facebook fan pages, too. They even look more than a little bit similar (if you imagine Messi as a 7-year-old, of course). Really, the only thing that does clearly separate Messi and Coira are the spelling of their first names -- Leo Messi is Lionel whereas Leo Coira is Leonel -- and Messi's well-stocked trophy case.
In short, if you think that Real Madrid officials weren't positively terrified by the thought of this young Argentine Leo eventually ending up at Barcelona's famed La Masia Academy, the breeding ground which groomed Messi's talent and helped transform it from potential to genius, you're kidding yourself.
Still, the Coira family insisted that the precocious youngster spent time at both Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid in brief tryouts and came away feeling much more comfortable with the youth program at Real Madrid. Coira's father, Miguel Coira, also insisted that the family will not receive any compensation for sending their younger son to Real Madrid, though he did acknowledge that the club would pay for transportation to and from Argentina.
To put the entire episode in American context, the Coira signing is essentially like the Red Sox signing an elementary school student from Kalamazoo, Mich., named Derek Jeter Jones (or any other last name), who happened to go by the nickname "Jeter." Needless to say, it just wouldn't happen.
Of course, no American professional franchise would sign a 7-year-old from another country to begin with, even for a designated youth development setup. That's precisely what makes this story all the more incredible, and head scratching when you try to make sense of it all.
Yet officials at Real Madrid insist that there is nothing puzzling about what sparked their interest in Coira. According to club spokesman Juan Tapiador, the 7-year-old is simply a unique talent.
"They only have to be a standout," Tapiador told the AP of Real Madrid's reason for signing Coira at his young age. "We look for something different, that quality or talent that makes them stand out from the rest."
The elder Coira is confident that his son will achieve great things with the Spanish giants, even if they don't come until his idol has finished his playing days with Real's biggest rivals, Barcelona.
"I trust the club a lot," Miguel Coira told ABC. "I know they will take good care of him."