Children are something you sell

An arms race is going on in the football world. Increased competition in the market is forcing clubs and investors to search for even younger talents for their junior academies. FC Barcelona and Real Madrid are only the tip of the iceberg in an industry that is trading children.

Children are something you sell
Foto: All Over Press

Takuhiro Nakai is a happy boy.
He does what he loves. Playing football.
But the 11-year-old footballer is not running and kicking on the green grass back home in Japan. He’s playing at “La Fábrica” in Madrid, Spain. He’s playing for Real Madrid’s “Alavin A”.
Takuhiro Nakai is a talented footballer. But he has a problem – as do many of the other 200 minors at “La Fábrica” in Madrid. They are playing football in Real Madrid in breach of Article 19 of “FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players” (see box, ed.). That is because Article 19 clearly states that children under the age of 18 cannot change clubs across continents. And Takuhiro Nakai’s address has changed from Japan to Spain – across continents.

No answers

Sport Executive would have liked to have spoken with Señor Emilio Butragueno, the director of institutional relations at Real Madrid, about the club’s interpretation of Article 19. But the message rang clear from Madrid:
“Sorry to inform you Mr. Butragueno will not do any interview,” Marta Santisteban López, Real Madrid’s head of communications, says.
“Is there anyone else in charge of Real Madrid who gives interviews?”
“…,”   Marta Santisteban López answers.

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However, Señor Butragueno did confirm in the Spanish media that the club is under investigation for being in breach of Article 19. But the director of institutional relations is “absolutely calm about the club’s behaviour”.
In January 2015 FIFA also confirmed to Sport Executive that the football federation was investigating several Spanish clubs for trading minors.
“FIFA is currently gathering all the relevant information and documentation in order to be in a position to properly assess the matter. No formal disciplinary proceedings have been opened at this stage. No further information can be provided for the time-being,” a spokesperson for FIFA, who prefers to be anonymous said to Sport Executive back then.
Three months later nothing has happened. Or, as a spokesperson in FIFA puts it:
“Please understand 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,” the person tells Sport Executive.
“Please also note that the timeframe for each disciplinary case can vary depending  on the specific legal and factual elements, the cooperation of the parties involved and administrative processes of each case. It is essential that due process is followed and that the rights of all parties are respected. In particular, we refer you to Article 88 of – the FIFA Disciplinary Code– “Confidentiality”.”

Not quite as happy

While Takuhiro Nakai is happy in Madrid nine other boys in Barcelona are not quite as happy. Seung-Ho Paik, Theo Chandri, Lee Seung Woo, Jang Gyeol Hee, Patrice Sousa, Bobby Adekanye, Ben Lederman, Takefusa Kubo and Kais Ruiz cannot do what they love – which is to play football for FC Barcelona. In December 2014,  the Court of Arbitration for Sport announced that it had found the Catalan club to be in breach of Article 19 of ‘FIFA’s regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players’. Therefore, the nine boys were not allowed to play for FC Barcelona.

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12-year-old Kais Ruiz is now back in France where he will play for Paris Saint-Germain or Olympique Lyon. 16-year-old Bobby Adekanye is playing in PSV Eindhoven in his home country, Holland. And the others? 13-year-old Takefusa Kubo and his family haves decided to go back home to Japan. 14-year-old Ben Lederman, 16-year-old Patrice Sousa, 18-year-old Seung-Ho Paik, 17-year-old Lee Seung Woo and 17-year-old Jang Gyeol Hee remain in limbo in Barcelona, while Theo Chandri now is playing legally for FC Barcelona.
As with Real Madrid, Sport Executive would love to talk with FC Barcelona about the future of these boys – especially as the club had tricked them into moving to Barcelona under false pretenses. And we would like to know what Sandro Reyes from the Philippines, born in 2003, is doing at FCBEscola in Barcelona. Or what Konrad de la Fuente from US, born in 2002- is doing in FC Barcelona’s “Under-14” youth team. But Señor Albert Montagut, FC Barcelona’s communications director, and Señor José Manuel Lázaro, who is in charge of the youth football at the club, won’t answer any questions from Sport Executive…
FIFA is almost as silent as FC Barcelona:
“With respect to the regularisation, we are in contact with FC Barcelona in order to gather all the required information to be in a position to fully assess this question,” the anonymous spokesperson says.
However, 30 December 2014, FC Barcelona was given 90 days to remedy the situation in accordance with Article 19; a deadline that expired on 1 April.

A billion dollar industry

Real Madrid and FC Barcelona are just the tip of the iceberg. The trade of minors in European elite football has been going on for decades and over the past couple of years it has grown into a significant business – and one that is growing at the same rate as the professional football industry itself.
Football has become a billion dollar industry with astronomical turnovers. An increasing number of people want to have a share in its glamorous world of money, power and honour, dazzling billions of people around the world.
The enormous profits it generates prompt teams to hunt for younger and younger football talents so they can achieve success in an increasingly competitive sport, minimise their costs – and maximise their profits.
The Southern European clubs are often the most aggressive talent scouts. But it is not only the clubs that are looking for the future stars. Over the past decade, a new player has entered the field, with anonymous “investment funds” in tax havens also wanting profit from finding a new Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar.

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A few years ago, the talented minors bought by the clubs were typically aged between 12 and 15, but today the clubs’ attention has shifted to the 9 to 12-year-olds. They are cheaper and often fly under FIFA’s radar – the International Transfer Certificate (ITC), and the Transfer Matching System (TMS) – if they are under the age of 10.
Chilean journalist and author Juan Pablo Mesnedes worked for two years as an undercover football agent in the South America. In his book “Niños futbolistas” and in Sport Executive, he has explains in detail, how it is possible to buy a talented young football player – no matter what age – for around 200 US dollars and easily sell the boy to a European football club at a profit.

Younger and younger

The intensifying global fight for young football talents prompted FIFA to lower the age requirement for international transfer certificates to 10 years of age in March 2015.
“In order to strengthen the protection of minors and due to the increased number of international transfers of players younger than 12, the Executive Committee has approved a reduction in the age limit for which an international transfer certificate (ITC) is required to the age of 10,” a FIFA spokesperson said to Sport Executive in January 2015.
“Why 10 years? Why not 8, 6, 4, 2 or 0 years?”
“The Executive Committee deemed it appropriate to stick to the age of 10 since they believed that, at this stage, the international transfer of players younger than 10 should not be an issue. But if a trend of international transfers of players even younger than 10 is detected, this limit could be reconsidered. Therefore FIFA will keep monitoring the issue closely in order to take relevant measures, if need be,” the spokesperson said in January.

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Today FIFA notes:
“The protection of minors continues to be of utmost importance for FIFA. We are convinced that the various measures currently in place, which we have communicated to you on previous occasions, have a positive impact on the situation of minor players. The situation continues to be carefully monitored in order for FIFA to be able to take the appropriate measures, if need be. We have no further comments.”
The union for professional footballers, FIFPro, does not have much confidence in FIFA’s actions to fight the international trade of children:
“Principally, it is a positive initiative from FIFA. But it does not solve any problems. Clubs and capital funds will just look for even younger talent. In the clubs – and in the capital funds – there are people who believe that they can spot a talent, no matter the age,” FIFPro board member Mads Øland says.
“And then there is the enforcement of the rules. In theory, there is nothing wrong with FIFA’s ethical rules, but what are they really? It is the same with the ITC and the TMS – there has to be a willingness to apply them,” Øland states.
“That is why a 10-years-of-age limit is no solution. The problem is that football players have been reduced to a commodity. This aspect of football is difficult to explain to parents, that their child is an item on a list – and not a person. And this goes all the way down to the amateur divisions,” Øland says.

Disaster ahead

Mads Øland predicts that the “war” – will only escalate in the coming years:
“Take the example of FC Barcelona’s purchase of Neymar. They wanted him for years. He ended up being extremely expensive for them, because the investment funds had to have their cut of the profit, and the funds’ cut is several hundred percent. It was the worst scenario imaginable for FC Barcelona,” Øland argues.

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“In other words, you pay top price to all the traders of the world, and you do not even know how good a player will be. This is why both clubs and investment funds want even earlier access to the food chain in order to reap the benefits. In the example with Neymar, FC Barcelona lost a potential profit,“ Øland states, and concludes:
“It will end in disaster at some point…”
In the meantime, Takuhiro Nakai still loves to play football at “La Fábrica” in Madrid.

Sport Executive has been following the international trade of children in football for three years. Many of its articles are available in English at www.sportexecutive.dk or http://www.playthegame.org/.