On 30 December 2014, one of the world’s most powerful football clubs in the world, FC Barcelona, and the world’s most well-known talent factory, La Masia were once again shaken to their foundations.
This was the day the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) announced that it had found the Spanish club to be in breach of Article 19 in ‘FIFA’s regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players’ – in no less than ten cases.
In other words; FC Barcelona has been involved in the trading of minors contravening the ‘FIFA Rules on Minors’ – and is as part of the punishment banned from buying or selling during the next two transfer windows.
The case has also led FIFA to lower the age limit required for international transfer certificates from 12 to 10 years of age, taking effect on 1 March 2015, in a move to close the loopholes in the net designed to restrain top football’s trafficking of under-age players.
”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,” says a spokesperson in FIFA who prefers to be anonymous.
‘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 to international transfers of players even younger than 10 would be detected, this limit could be reconsidered. Therefore FIFA will keep on monitoring closely the issue in order to take the relevant measures, if need be,” says the spokesperson.
If you replace 10 with 12, this is practically the same answer that FIFA gave the Danish online magazine on sport and society, Sport Executive, in the fall of 2013, when the question was about the age limit of 12 years of age (see text box 2).
A billion dollar industry
The trade of minors in European top football has during the past couple of decades grown into a business of a significant size – at the same rate of increase as football. In other words, football has become a billion dollar industry with astronomical turnovers. Therefore an increasing number of people want a part of its glamorous world of money, power and honour, dazzling billions of people around the world.
The enormous profits have led to a hunt for continuously younger football talents in order to achieve sporting success in an increasingly sharp competition, to minimise costs – and to maximise profit.
This does not only take place among the clubs, with the Southern European clubs as the most aggressive, but also with a new player on the field, anonymous capital funds in tax havens, who also want a part of the profit for a new Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar.
A few years back, the talented minors that were bought by the clubs were typically between 12-15 years old, but today the attention has shifted to the 9-12 years olds. They are cheaper and they still – also from 1 March –, go below FIFA’s radar, the International Transfer Certificate (ITC), and the Transfer Matching System (TMS), if they are under the age of 10.
For example, in 2013, Real Madrid bought the nine-year-old Japanese Takuhiro Nakai – and the year before, FC Barcelona signed the nine-year-old Sandro Reyes from the Philippines. Both players would go below FIFA’s ITC and TMS radar, also after 1 March 2015.
Chilean journalist and author Juan Pablo Mesnedes, who for two years worked as an undercover football agent on the South American football scene, has explained in detail in his book ‘Niños futbolistas’, how one can buy a talented young football kid – no matter the age – for a price of around USD 200 and easily sell the boy to a European football club, with a profit.
The intensifying global fight for young football talent has now made FIFA lower the age requirement for international transfer certificates to 10 years of age.
“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,” says Mads Øland, board member in the international players’ union, FIFPro.
And then there is the enforcement of the rules. In theory, there is nothing wrong with FIFA’s ethical rules, but how is it 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 – and not a person. 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.
Unrest in Barcelona
The explanation of the rules and the enforcement of them is hard to understand in FC Barcelona, which – as the only club – has now been found guilty of breaches of rules on under-age players. The unrest after CAS sent out the verdict has even led club president Josep Maria Bartomeu to give up his mandate and call for a presidential election at the end of the season. An election he is likely to lose to former club president from 2003-10, Joan Laporta, writes Spanish media.
Meanwhile, it is still not clear what will happen to the ’illegal’ under-age players in FC Barcelona.
”In respect to the time period granted to FC Barcelona to regularise the situation of the minors concerned, please note that we are currently analysing all the specific situations and cannot comment for the time-being,” says the FIFA spokesperson.
‘The FC Barcelona case is only the tip of the iceberg – as Sport Executive has told FIFA before. Will FIFA take legal actions against other European clubs’?
“With regard to any other investigation, and as previously mentioned, 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,” FIFA concludes.
The FIFA Article 19 on protection of minors
The FIFA Article 19 on protection of minors
1. International transfers of players are only permitted if the player is over the age of 18.
2. The following three exceptions to this rule apply:
a) The player’s parents move to the country in which the new club is located for reasons not linked to football.
b) The transfer takes place within the territory of the European Union (EU) or European Economic Area (EEA) and the player is aged between 16 and 18. In this case, the new club must fulfil the following minimum obligations:
i. It shall provide the player with an adequate football education and/or training in line with the highest national standards.
ii. It shall guarantee the player an academic and/or school and/or vocational education and/or training, in addition to his football education and/or training, which will allow the player to pursue a career other than football should he cease playing professional football.
iii. It shall make all necessary arrangements to ensure that the player is looked after in the best possible way (optimum living standards with a host family or in club accommodation, appointment of a mentor at the club, etc.).
iv. It shall, on registration of such a player, provide the relevant association with proof that it is complying with the aforementioned obligations.
c) The player lives no further than 50 km from a national border and the club with which the player wishes to be registered in the neighbouring association is also within 50 km of that border. The maximum distance between the player’s domicile and the club’s headquarters shall be 100 km. In such cases, the player must continue to live at home and the two associations concerned must give their explicit consent.
FIFA answers to inquiries
FIFA answers to inquiries
FIFA’s mail to Sport Executive on 23 September 2013:
“The Sub-Committee deemed it appropriate to stick to the age of 12 since they believed that the international transfer of players younger than 12 should not be an issue. They also stated that if a trend to international transfers of players even younger than 12 would be detected, they would reconsider their position. FIFA is therefore monitoring the issue in order to take the relevant measures, if need be.”
FIFA’s mail to Sport Executive on 12 January 2015:
“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 to international transfers of players even younger than 10 would be detected, this limit could be reconsidered. Therefore FIFA will keep on monitoring closely the issue in order to take the relevant measures, if need be.”