BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentines are proud their players are everywhere, in big football countries like Spain and England, and small outposts from Albania to Vietnam.
Young players can dream of playing in Wembley Stadium in London or Camp Nou in Barcelona, and the exodus guarantees top talent is continually tested against the best in the world. Even lesser talent finds work.
But local clubs like Boca Juniors and River Plate are paying the price.
Argentine teams survive by finding and selling the rights to players — over 2,000 left in 2010 — at ever younger ages. Few have sophisticated marketing operations, many stadiums are decrepit and ticket sales and merchandising lag as money makers. The talent drain is hurting the nation's league and even, some say, Argentina's chances of winning a third World Cup.
Meanwhile, going abroad is not always an easy road to riches. The emigration pattern matches that of other talented Argentines who have left the country, hoping to escape economic downturns, dictatorships and well-documented corruption.
Cristian Colusso is the flip-side of Lionel Messi. Both grew up in the Argentine city of Rosario, promising young forwards hoping to strike it rich at a big European club.
Barcelona spotted Messi before he reached his teens, and shipped him to Spain where he became the best player of his generation, seen as the successor to Diego Maradona.
Colusso was sold at 19 to Spanish club Sevilla. What defenders could not do, bad luck and corruption managed to.
"As a young man, maybe I was immature and unprepared for the bad things that would happen," Colusso, now 33 and living back in Argentina, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Before I left I was 100 percent on top of my game and felt no one could stop me."
Sold in 1997 to Sevilla, Colusso got caught up in a fraud case involving his agent, who reportedly tried to pocket as much as $1.2 million on the transfer. Eventually he was shipped to the Mexican club Leon and barely played for several years.
This was followed by psychological counseling to regain his confidence, and transfers to clubs in Argentina, England, Italy, Ecuador, Venezuela — even tryouts with two MLS clubs in the United States — and eventually a three-month nightmare with Algerian club USM Blida.
"I signed the contract in Paris. I can't remember the agent's name, but if I could I would not repeat it out of fear. When I arrived in Algeria I was greeted by the head of the police, who was the right-hand man of the club president. They took my passport, and the club put me in a spare room in a store that sold toilet fixtures."
Colusso said his work permit prohibited him from playing on the club because he had not played for Argentina's national team — only its under-20 team.
"I couldn't play, I didn't have enough to eat and I had to change money on the black market. It was all so strange, and when I wanted to leave I couldn't. I had to get my family to talk with the Argentine embassy. I hardly ate and came back having lost 6-7 kilos (15 pounds)."
Despite his up-and-down career, Colusso managed to save money and lives comfortably with his wife and two young sons in Rosario. He said his beginning salary at Sevilla was between $300,000 and $400,000.
"I accomplished a lifelong dream, played in the Argentine first division, and I am proud of my career," he said. "I did all I could, but everything was not in my hands. I needed to be stronger mentally. I saw places I would never have seen and I live well because of football."
What advice would he give to players and agents?
"I'd suggest players need to go away and play when they are a bit older, and they should eased into it by clubs and agents who are looking out for them, their interests."
Gerardo Molina, CEO of Euroamericas Sports Marketing, said a recent study by his company showed Argentina has become the No. 1 exporter of football players. In 2010, 2,204 Argentine players were sold or transferred to clubs abroad, topping Brazil as an exporter with 1,674. Molina said selling the rights to Argentine players generated about $500 million.
Molina's said 45 percent of the Argentine players who were sold off ended up in all divisions of six European football powers — England, Spain, Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands — with the rest scattered to the four corners from Greece to Indonesia, Finland to Mexico.
"More than from marketing or television, clubs pay off their debts and sustain themselves by selling players," Molina said.
Argentina surpassed Brazil in exporting players over the last several years, and not necessarily because Argentina has more talent, he said.
"The Argentine clubs are weaker financially than the Brazilians. They (clubs) don't know how to generate income, so they sell football players," he said.
To help cash-strapped clubs, in 2009 the Argentine Football Association tore up contracts with its TV rights holders and transferred the package to state-run television. The deal, which offers every league match on free TV, was initially valued at $600 million, but recent reports suggest it was closer to $1 billion. The deal at least doubled the clubs' TV revenue and amounts to a state subsidy for clubs.
The arrangement gave clubs a much-needed income boost and is sure to be a vote winner for President Cristina Fernandez, who is expected to seek re-election in 2011.
"Recently we can see the level of football getting worse in Argentina because even the so-called big clubs can't keep players with offers coming from overseas," said agent Roberto Goris, who runs Goris Football Management in Buenos Aires. "It's clear the quality of play is dropping because the young players are leaving."
Goris said he had placed players in Indonesia, Haiti and the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean.
"There is always a market for good Argentine players," Goris added. "There are requests from many countries, and not just for first-division players but for second- and third-division, too."
Argentina's top clubs scout talent, putting prospects in developmental programs. Powerful European clubs like Barcelona, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Bayern Munich run academies in the country, or have agreements with academies and talent scouts.
"Because Europeans are looking here more and more ... we have to sign them at an earlier age," said Sebastian Pait, coordinator of youth scouting for Argentina first-division club Velez Sarsfield.
The club runs a youth academy and, at almost any time during the year, houses 46 players — typically ages 13 to 18 — in a dormitory located at the club's main stadium complex. In addition to schooling, players get psychological counseling and nutritional advice.
To protect talent from poachers, clubs may sign players to a first contract for about $1,000 monthly — big money for many players who, like Maradona, grew up in grinding poverty and hope to use football as a way out.
Pait said he sees more than 7,000 players a year and some even make it big, like winger Mauro Zarate. He was sold by Velez several years ago to Qatar club Al-Sadd for a whopping $22 million. He later moved to England's Birmingham and on to Italy's Lazio.
In recent major transfers, Boca Juniors sold Nicolas Gaitan to Portugal's Benfica for $12 million, and Ezequiel Munoz to Italy's Palermo for $7 million.
Pait circles his blue-painted office deep inside the Velez stadium, pointing to photos of recent Velez youth teams and calling out the nations where players have landed: Mexico, Italy, Albania and Scotland.
"Players can make it without being a Messi," Pait said. "Players who understand they have to work at it, have to study a language, and train seriously each day will wind up playing somewhere without being so outstanding. The market is very large."
So big that Argentine Football Association can't even keep track of all the Argentine players abroad. It has acknowledged, for instance, that it knew nothing about Messi until he surfaced with Barcelona's junior team.
New national team coach Sergio Batista has acknowledged the problem and wants to open offices in Spain and Italy to help with the accounting. "There are many kids that we don't even know about who are playing in Europe," Batista said.
The newspaper Clarin said 69 Argentines were member of clubs this season that won league titles, cup titles, and other trophies. The best examples are Esteban Cambiasso, Javier Zanetti, Diego Milito and Walter Samuel who were key members of Inter Milan, which won the league, local cup, European Champions League, the Italian Super Cup and World Club title.
Others were on winning clubs in more obscure places: Matias Suarez and Luis Biglia led Anderlecht to the 2010 Belgian league title. In Croatia, Dinamo Zagreb is headed by Luis Ibanez and Romanian club CFR Cluj won its league title with help from Sixto Peralta. Forward Gonzalo Marronkle is a star a Vietnam club T&T Hanoi.
Despite the talent, Argentina's national team has not won a major title since 1993. Its last World Cup title was 1986, and the Gauchos were humiliated in a 4-0 loss to Germany in the quarterfinals of the 2010 tournament in South Africa.
"The reason Argentina has not won is that all the players are abroad and there is no time to train together," said Daniel Hererra, a youth talent scout who attended a recent conference put on by Argentinos Juniors, a club that bills itself as "the seed bed" for developing young talent.
"If all the Argentines and Brazilians playing in Europe were in leagues here, the World Cup every time would only be between Brazil and Argentina. This is guaranteed."
Associated Press writer Vicente Panetta in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.