Tomás Avilés was just eight months old when in October 2004 Lionel Messi pulled on the Barcelona shirt for the first time in a competitive match. Now, almost two decades later, the promising young centre-back will be playing alongside Leo in the pink of Inter Miami, after completing a move from Racing Club that will net the Avellaneda club a cool US$9 million for one of the side's most promising prospects.
The advantages for both teams from this deal are clear to see. Avilés will help bolster an Inter defence which has looked shaky even as Messi has run riot in his new environs, most notably in Sunday's thrilling 4-4 draw against Orlando City. Racing, meanwhile, receive an injection of hard currency which is always welcome, indeed almost impossible to turn down in such trying local economic circumstances. But for La Academia and, indeed, most of their Liga Profesional de Fútbol, this trend of snapping up teenage talent sets a worrying precedent on the field of play itself.
Áviles, after all, made his first-team debut as recently as the end of February and played a grand total of 20 professional games between the league, Copa Libertadores and Copa Argentina before Racing decided to cash in. His Argentina U-20 World Cup team-mate Alejo Véliz has featured a little more at senior level but still managed barely 60 appearances for Rosario Central before Tottenham Hotspur came knocking with a deal that could ascend to a whopping US$23 million when bonuses are taken into consideration.
Véliz is not the only Central alumnus in the Premier League: Brighton swooped in January to sign Facundo Buonanotte, who had celebrated his 18th birthday just two weeks prior to moving and played a mere 34 times for the Canalla. And if more evidence were needed that Argentine youngsters are in hot demand this window, look no further than Ignacio Miramón, the Gimnasia prospect whose very first season in the Lobo first team convinced Lile to part with a reported US$8 million for the 20-year-old midfielder.
All of which looks great on the balance sheet, but what of those left behind? Avilés' emergence had finally started to quell the horrendous defensive displays that had dogged Racing throughout 2023. Without him, those failings were all too evident as Atlético Nacional ran riot in a 4-2 Copa Libertadores defeat that left Fernando Gago's charges on the brink of elimination, with mistakes at the back the prime reason for that nightmare outing. Central were able to brush off the loss of Buonanotte this season largely off the back of Véliz's 11-goal haul in the Liga Profesional, but the coming season promises to be far bleaker; while Gimnasia have even less margin for error having finished the league campaign just five points from relegation. Racing have at least moved in the market, bringing in the mercurial Juan Fernando Quintero and several new faces, but no fans of Central or Gimnasia, mired in the most precarious of financial circumstances, are seriously expecting any new arrival to make up for those departures.
The stark reality is that in a global transfer market which has become almost severely overheated at the top, due partly to the influence of the state-owned petroclubs (City, PSG and their ilk) and now the millions thrown around like confetti in Saudi Arabia, nations like Argentina represent a tantalising opportunity to snap up promising talent for pennies on the dollar. And not just for Europe's elite: MLS has for years cast a covetous eye on the land of Messi, and sees Argentina as the perfect source for young, inexpensive stars that can drive a franchise forward as well as command significant resale value.
In the local game, meanwhile, choices are ever thinner. With the best players moving earlier and earlier clubs must compromise, picking up those either too young, too old or not good enough to play elsewhere, or else gamble that yesterday's wonderkid who flamed out overseas can rediscover his best form back home. The result is inevitable: a league that can only trend downwards in terms of quality and competitiveness, and an inferior product across the board.