Thousands of children have been traded already
Updated 23 April 2014, first edition published 9 April 2014:
On 2 April the ground shook under one of the world’s most powerful football clubs, FC Barcelona, and the world’s most well-known talent factory, La Masia. This was the day the international football federation, FIFA, announced that it had found the Spanish club to be in breach of Article 19 of ‘The regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players’ – in no less than ten cases.
The paragraph in question was on the protection of minors – and FC Barcelona has allegedly bought underage players from as far away as South Korea and USA despite FIFA’s ‘Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players’ clearly stating that children under the age of 18 cannot change clubs across continents.
The finding prompted FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee to “sanction the club with a transfer ban at both national and international level for two complete and consecutive transfer periods, together with a fine of CHF 450.000. Additionally, the club was granted a period of 90 days in which to regularize the situation of all minor players concerned”.
This happened because the committee found that: “The interest in protecting the appropriate and healthy development of a minor as a whole must prevail over purely sporting interests.”
FC Barcelona instantly announced that it intends to appeal the sanction and, if necessary, take it all the way to the International Court of Arbitration for Sport, CAS. We will come back to that.
All the major clubs are doing it
But why has FIFA waited until now to intervene? The football federation banned six of the now ten ‘illegal’ players back in February 2013, even though they have kept playing for the club since then. For anyone with insight into the football industry it is a well-known fact that organised trading with underage players, in pursuit of the new Lionel Messi, Christiano Ronaldo and Neymar, has been taking place for years.
The main perpetrators are the major clubs in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Greece and Belgium – with children being reaped mainly from South America, Africa and Asia. For more than a year – right through to 2 April – the free Danish magazine, Sport Executive (www.sportexecutive.dk), has followed and covered the international trade of children, and has asked FIFA on multiple occasions why it has not intervened – only to receive evasive answers.
FIFA has even set up a committee to watch over the under-age players and systems – Transfer Matching System (TMS) and International Transfer Certificate (ITC) – which are, among other things, supposed to protect the young players. The problem is that until now FIFA has turned a blind eye to what looks like obvious rule violations and – in the case that the child in question is younger than 12 – does not even register international transfers between clubs.
In spite of rules, ingenious systems and controls, it was not until 2 April that FIFA reacted to the fact that thousands of under-age boys were being sold and shipped from other continents to major European clubs. Now FC Barcelona has been punished for its ten underage players. But FC Barcelona allegedly has at least 38 ‘illegal’ under-age players, Atletico Madrid has at least 24, Inter Milano at least 18, Real Madrid at least 13, AS Roma at least 6 – and a long line of other clubs, which are alleged to take part in the organised trade of minors, but do not provide the necessary information on their youth squads – neither on their websites nor by telephone request.
In such cases, thorough public control is completely impossible. What is, for example, 11-year-old Sandro Reyes from the Philippines doing in Barcelona, nine-year-old Ninte Nater Carugal from Guinea in Atletico Madrid, ten-year-old Cheikh Fall from Senegal in Inter Milano and ten-year-old Takuhiro Nakai from Japan in Real Madrid?
FC Barcelona states in the club’s 14-point long defence letter to FIFA, that in Catalonia alone is has been estimated ‘that 15.000 underage players born outside Spain and registered with their federation who, according to the criteria used in this case (FC Barcelona’s, ed.) by FIFA, would have to be considered to be in a similarly unauthorized state’. This is probably an exaggeration, but – as Sport Executive has described – thousands of trades of underage boys are taking place in European football every year. And they have been for years.
A necessary wake-up call
“This is taking place out in the open in the major clubs. It is not just FC Barcelona. They are not even using what you call ‘strawman academies’,” says Mads Øland, board member of the world players union, FIFPro.
“No one has done anything about this yet – but the rules are made to be followed. But what can you do? If FIFA lowers the age requirements for international transfer certificates to ten years, the clubs will just go after the nine-year-olds,” Øland argues, and continues:
“The basic problem is that players have been turned into commodities – they are not treated as humans. Players today have a preposterous trade value – and there are so much money involved – and there are astronomical profits on the sales of players, that the only right thing to do is to look at the entire transfer system anew. It is out of control – and it will end in disaster at some point.”
The European football federation, UEFA, also welcomes the verdict. UEFA has long pleaded for a ban of third-party-ownership, which in later years has further escalated the trade of children in European football – and further lowered the age limit for ‘hunted football talents’.
“The verdict shines a necessary light on the international football activities, where ‘Protection of Minors’ seems to be a regulation only on paper, which the clubs are merely bypassing. No matter the outcome of the case against FC Barcelona this has to lead to a heightened awareness of what is actually going on in the hunt for still younger football talents. All of the stakeholders in football will now have to go through the entire set of rules in the area to secure a much stronger protection of minors – also the very youngest. This has to be a wake-up call for the entire world of football. We simply must discuss football’s moral guidelines,” says Karen Espelund, member of UEFA’s Executive Committee and former general secretary of the Norwegian football federation.
The Danish member of UEFA’s Executive Committee and former chairman of the Danish football federation, Allan Hansen, also acknowledges that something has to be done:
“I have raised the question with Marco Villiger, FIFA’s legal director, and the Danish Football Association (DBU) is in contact with FIFA regarding the issue. FIFA announced to us in January that they are currently evaluating whether there is a need to tighten the regulations based on some of the cases you have brought up. For example, by lowering the age limit or, alternatively, by insisting that all clubs must possess player certificates for all players,” he told Sport Executive magazine in late February 2014.
“We intend to follow up on the matter, since I personally continue to believe that the younger the player, the more protection he needs,” Hansen declares.
It is a conspiracy
FC Barcelona is puzzled by the verdict. As mentioned, the club has produced a 14-point long defence letter underlining that all clubs are acting against FIFA’s regulations. The club also argues that La Masia should be exempt from FIFA’s rules, because it takes good care of the children. Therefore, the club is appealing the verdict – probably all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) – and this means that the club is still allowed to trade during this summer’s transfer window, as the verdict has a delaying effect and the appeal could drag on for months.
In the meantime, FC Barcelona rages against the verdict with torrents of words such as these published on the club’s website:
“We are looking what is behind this, and when we can show it, we will say. There is a lot of people who can’t accept that Barca wins everything and that we’ve been the leaders in world football for the past ten years. This doesn’t assimilate well, but we won’t sit here with arms crossed, and the answer will be forceful, that I guarantee you,” Barcelona’s economic vice president, Javier Faus, says.
He is supported by President Josep Maria Bartomeu:
“At Barcelona we agree with the FIFA rules on the protection of minors. It’s our philosophy. We set an example for many countries thanks to La Masia. We are victims of a great injustice. We are not prepared to forgo our educational model and we will defend all of the minors on our books. The message we want to transmit is that La Masia cannot be touched.”
According to Josep Maria Bartomeu, he has already been in telephone contact with his colleague in FIFA, Sepp Blatter, and arranged a personal meeting to talk things through. If and how the two presidents manage to talk their way out of Article 19 in FIFA’s ‘The Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players’ remains to be seen. At CAS, they seem to have no doubts. As a CAS spokesperson expressed to the Spanish newspaper AS:
“The provision is closely controlled both by FIFA and CAS, which is where the case will end up. The provision was written with extreme care by responsible individuals at both institutions, for which reason they will be inflexible, as has been their stance until now.”
During the upheaval, FIFA has remained quiet. The organisation has not spoken about the case since 2 April. But now Sport Executive has received some answers to the following questions – and the following is an interview with FIFA Media Departments spokesperson Cilla Duncan, who prefers to be named as a FIFA spokesman:
‘Why have you sanctioned FC Barcelona for 10 ‘illegal’ minor players when there are at least 30 minors In FCB from all continents who are still playing despite the rules?’
“At this stage we are not in a position to go into further details of the case due to confidentiality reasons.” ‘Are you/FIFA investigating others clubs for the same actions? If so, which clubs? If not – why?’
“With regard to any other clubs, we are not in a position to comment on any investigations that are ongoing so as not to compromise the process, nor do we provide any comments as to whether or not any investigations are underway.”
‘Are you considering implementing ‘An international transfer certificate’ for minors under 12? And getting your committee to control it?’
“The protection of minors continues to be of major importance for FIFA. As a result, and as already mentioned in previous emails, the situation is being carefully monitored, in order for FIFA to be able to take the appropriate measures, if need be. The fact that international transfers of players younger than 12 do not need to be approved by the Players’ Status Sub-Committee does not mean that FIFA is not observing the situation closely, by means of networks existing within its structure and in connection with its member associations.”
‘Are you/FIFA considering banning third-party ownership to close the loophole considering minors, clubs and private football-academies?’
“The topic of third-party ownership of players’ economic rights (TPO), is currently being discussed at different levels of the European and international football community and within the relevant FIFA standing committees. This is a complex matter and requires careful analysis, so FIFA’s approach is to address this matter within its different bodies through discussions and consultations with all relevant stakeholders, using as well the research available on this topic. To that end, FIFA has also mandated two studies with the overall objective to further increase the understanding of all the aspects connected with this practice and the findings of both studies will also be incorporated in all future work.”
N.B. The answers from FIFA came in after the first edition of this article was published (on 9 April 2014). The article has been updated on 23 April 2014 to include FIFA's response. This article is based on the investigations by the Danish online magazine, Sport Executive, which for more than a year has followed the international trade of under-age players. Read the follow-up story, “Children are something you sell…”, on the trade of children in football.