The world's greatest footballer, Lionel Messi, would stand less chance of playing international football if he was Scottish, new research by an NHS Highland consultant suggests.
Consultant in Public Health Medicine Dr Cameron Stark has revealed strong evidence that youth football in Scotland tends to be dominated by older, taller and stronger boys born in the first few months of the year.
Dr Stark has found that, with the eligibility year for youth football in Scotland beginning in January, boys born at the start of the year tend to be selected ahead of smaller boys born later the same year.
And that, he fears, could mean that children with the wrong birthdays could be getting bypassed by coaches – and be put off sport and physical activity in later life.
Dr Cameron’s study, which has been approved by the University of Stirling’s School of Sport Departmental Ethics Committee, was co-written by former Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager Charlie Christie, who is now head of youth development with the club.
Christie said: "I find it scary that this January cut-off for registration means that players like Messi – who was born in June and who is just 5ft 6ins tall – would have less chance of making it big in Scotland.
"Talented small players like Messi are achieving huge success in Spain, for example, and I would suggest this is a reason to examine the registration rules in Scotland.
"Perhaps allowing the younger players who are born in the last few months of the year to play at an age level below would be a possibility."
For Dr Stark’s study the Scottish Football Association provided anonymous information on the year and month of birth of registered male youth players for the season 2010-11.
A total of 29,145 youth players were registered with the SFA, of whom 27,001 were in the ‘recreational’ tier and the remainder registered with professional clubs.
Significantly fewer players who were born in the later months are registered with professional clubs – a phenomenon known as the Relative Age Effect.
For example, 37 boys born in January 1995 were signed by professional clubs, compared to just nine who were born in November and December.
This disparity in figures continued throughout the study, which was carried out on those born between 1994 and 2000.
Christie believes the study shows that changes have to be made before Scotland falls even further behind the rest of the footballing world.
He said: "I was intrigued to see that the study shows just how high a percentage of Scotland’s top youth football players were actually born in the first half of the year.
"In my opinion, this is something which is linked to their physical development at an early age."
Only once in the entire study, from June 1996, did players born in the last eight weeks of the calendar outweigh any other month of the year; when 12 November and eight December born players were preferred over the five selected from June.
This is by no means restricted to the ‘non-recreational’ level clubs, as boy’s clubs were shown to register players born earlier in the year in every one of the six years which were analysed.
The study suggests that while it is unfair to claim all players born in the early part of the year are only playing at a high level based on their birth month and not on merit, it is clear to see the disparity in numbers, and suggest perhaps a whole generation of talent has slipped through the net.
NHS Highland Health Promotion Officer Dan Jenkins said: "While it is acceptable that all candidates will not progress to the professional level, it is important that structures do not unfairly restrict access to developmental opportunities due to physical growth within an age category, rather than skill or potential.
"The key lesson for health improvement which may be learned from the Relative Age Effect is around equality of access to opportunity.
"We have a duty to promote physical activity of all kinds to children and young people and being aware of the RAE in elite sport can guide us in minimising such an impact at all levels of participation.
"Age, growth and skill appropriate encouragement for all children to be more active more often, will have a significant impact on the health of the next generation."