The Instagram Account Scouts And Agents Are Tracking To Find The Best Young Football Talent
An Instagram account has exploded in influence and popularity to the point where Premier League scouts and agents are using it to track the best emerging talent.
Youth football platform Rising Ballers only began in 2017, but has shone a spotlight on so many players - from academy stars to unsigned gems - that everyone from heads of club recruitment to sportswear brands are using it to judge a player's potential.
"A lot of clubs use Rising Ballers as an easy way to scout players they haven't heard of," says founder Eni Shabani.
"Every single player under the age of 23, who's playing in the Premier League right now, we were probably showing them on Rising Ballers.
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"So we've got really early clips of Mason Greenwood doing stepovers as an under-15, we've got Phil Foden doing amazing dribbles in his Man City under-15 days. Whatever player is breaking through now, we've probably been talking about them for two or three years before that."
Being ahead of the game with new stars, posting Jadon Sancho videos when he was a relative unknown, is what's given Rising Ballers an audience of 15+ million a month. However players like Greenwood or Foden were already in club academies, so it's the showcasing of unsigned players or clips of kids in parks and cages that's grabbed the attention of people in the game.
"I'd say most of the top 10 Premier League clubs have a really comprehensive recruitment system," says Eni. "But the clubs beneath that, they can't be everywhere at once - so a platform like Rising Ballers is really important.
"I know there's a lot of scouts and heads of recruitment at academies - from Premier League all the way to League Two - who watch our channels.
"Agents also use it as a way to figure out which players they should be representing. We've even heard that a sportswear brand - I won't say which one - but when they're looking at signing certain players as athletes, they use Rising Ballers to see how much noise a player has."
The next challenge was how to mobilise such a massive audience. RBs' bold step was to create a grassroots football team of their own - one designed to spotlight the best young, unsigned talent with the aim of getting them a pro contract.
After a one-minute promo on Instagram asking for players dropped on a Sunday, Eni was hoping to get about 40 serious applications to form a squad. "We ended up getting 5,000!" he laughs. "So we had 5,000 players we had to trial - but it was a very humbling response."
Once those 5,000 had been trimmed down to just 20, Rising Ballers FC was formed. The players are trained, coached and play weekly games, sometimes against academy youth sides - from Chelsea to Colchester - as well as non-league teams. Match highlights are shared on the RB channels.
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Ran by Eni and his co-founders Brendon and Jamie, it's a passion project for them to show that these players can still make it - and at the highest level of the pro game.
"They're 17, 18, 19 years old - but they've been told they won't make it because it's too late," he says. "Almost all (youth) scouting and recruitment is done between the ages of four to 12. That's the age where scouts spend the majority of their time."
However players develop at different rates. Last season's Premier League Golden Boot winner Jamie Vardy, still playing non-league football in his early 20s - plus other late developers such as Ian Wright - show that judging a footballer before their late teens is a flawed system.
"We wanted to prove that that approach is wrong," says Eni. "Trained by arguably one of the best coaches in London right now (Maz), in our first season six of those 20 boys ended up signing professional contracts with pro clubs. Two at Sheffield United, one got offered a spot at Chelsea, one at QPR, one at Colchester and so on.
"We just want to be at the forefront of uncovering gems and unlocking their potential. A lot of these kids have come from really difficult backgrounds, might not have necessarily had the right opportunity - might have just been put aside or given up on.
"And suddenly they're signing contracts with big Premier League clubs and their whole lives have been turned around."
The expanded impact of both Rising Ballers as a platform, as well as Rising Ballers FC, has been in tandem with the revival in fortunes of fresh English talent.
World Cup triumphs for England's under-17 and under-20 sides in 2017 highlighted that homegrown players - who'd previously seen their pathway to a first-team spot at Premier League clubs blocked by big-money imports - were breaking through all the same. Even if some had to leave home soil to show what they could do professionally.
Yet it's still the individual stories that Eni feels most proud about, as players his channel highlighted early on turn their flourishing potential into proven success.
"Every year we do a Rising Baller of the year, where we get our audience to comment on who it should be and create a shortlist of 10. In 2019, when Bukayo Saka was 17 - before he was really on the main stage - he won it.
Now, we're going in to Arsenal later this year to hand deliver him his Rising Ballers kit with 'Saka' on the back as a homage to his grind two years ago. He was a Rising Baller, this shirt signifies it - and now he's Arsenal's No 7. He has risen."
Featured image: Rising Ballers