A controversial exit from Celtic has angered the Scottish club, but Graham Davidson asks if they have the right to feel aggrieved
It has never been unusual for Scottish players to move south at an early age. Denis Law and Billy Bremner never kicked a ball in club football at home, while more recently Darren Fletcher arrived in Manchester before he was a teenager. None of these moves, however, generated the publicity recently given to Islam Feruz's decision to move from Celtic to Chelsea.
Feruz arrived in Glasgow as a six-year-old refugee from the conflict in Somalia, which claimed the lives of two of his grandparents. He was picked up by Celtic four years later. It was not until the family was facing the threat of deportation in 2006, however, that the Scottish press first paid attention. The late Tommy Burns helped the Feruz family to secure permanent residence in Britain.
A series of highly impressive performances for Celtic and Scotland at various age-group levels has seen interest in the player gradually increase and he has inevitably been branded the "Scottish Wayne Rooney". Before news of his move to Chelsea emerged, Feruz had already been training with the first team at Celtic Park, and had looked a decent bet to make his full debut at some point this season. Celtic, however, have now lost a potential superstar for a mere £300,000 and have hit out furiously at Feruz's agent Rui Alves for advising his young charge poorly.
So, do Celtic really have a case, or are they merely acting in self-interest? Supporters of Hibernian, in particular, would smile at one of the Old Firm complaining about a youth product being hoovered up by a bigger team. In recent seasons they have seen numerous players, most notably the current internationals Scott Brown and Steven Whittaker, depart for Glasgow. Others have pointed out that, leaving aside the emotive issues surrounding Feruz's refugee status, his case differs little to that of Danny Wilson, who left Rangers for Liverpool after a handful of games.
While there is some truth in this view, it is surely unrealistic for Celtic to accept the loss of a player they have invested in so personally for such a low fee. By focusing their ire on the player's agent rather than Feruz, the club have handled the situation with dignity. While they might be acting in self-interest by trying to keep Feruz in Glasgow for a few more years to maximise his transfer fee, it is inarguable that his first-team opportunities would have been greater at Celtic Park than at Stamford Bridge in the near future. What would have been best for Celtic might have been right for the player as well.
While Celtic are unlikely to wish to hear from Alves again in the near future, supporters of the national team will have been gladdened to hear the agent's assurances that Feruz has no intention of attempting to switch allegiances to England. Alves has stated that the adopted Glaswegian is "Scottish and will one day score goals for Scotland". Perhaps the most positive aspect of the saga so far has been the complete lack of controversy regarding this point. While many Scotland supporters are divided over the eligibility of the likes of Andy Driver and Phil Bardsley, no pub or message board debate on the issue is complete without agreement from all parties that Feruz, an African-born asylum seeker, definitely qualifies for Scotland.
Bizarrely, the dissension surrounding Feruz focuses on his age rather than his eligibility. Citing examples of other sub-Saharan African players who have burned brightly at youth level and struggled in adulthood, such as Freddy Adu, rumours abound that Feruz is somewhat older than his officially given age of 16. While it is certainly unusual for a player to emerge at such a young age – he made his debut for Scotland Under-17s shortly after his 14th birthday – anyone present at Dunfermline's East End Park that night would have seen a player dwarfed by his obviously older team-mates.
Feruz's promise might not be fulfilled at senior level, but this would have precious little to do with a dodgy birth certificate. While a 19-year-old might conceivably be passed off as 16, it would be virtually impossible for a 13-year-old to pretend to be ten, the age at which Feruz first signed for Celtic. The youth international who makes an impact at the very top level is very much the exception rather than the rule. Anyone needing confirmation of this might like to do a brief "where are they now" check on the Scotland team from the Under-19 European Championship final (that's final, not just finals) in 2006.
Feruz could turn out to be Scotland's first home-grown black superstar, but the law of averages dictates that he just as likely will not, and Celtic might not have got such a bad deal after all.
From WSC 298 December 2011