This morning’s news is that FIFA has decided to up the ante on Barcelona’s current ban for incorrectly registering youth players under the rules of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players, Article 19. You can read the whole thing here (PDF), if you’re so inclined, but here is the relevant statute:
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 50km from a national border and the club with which the player wishes to be registered in the neighbouring association is also within 50km of that border. The maximum distance between the player’s domicile and the club’s headquarters shall be 100km. In such cases, the player must continue to live at home and the two associations concerned must give their explicit consent.
3. The conditions of this article shall also apply to any player who has never previously been registered with a club and is not a national of the country in which he wishes to be registered for the first time.
That’s quite a bit to parse, and many have already done so, making this unlikely to be a new topic for many readers. My focus here today is part B and its subordinate clauses (i-iv). Feel free to take a minute to re-read them because they’re pretty interesting, especially given FIFA’s new stance on who can train and live at La Masia.
In essence, the players that are affected are players that are already playing for Barcelona and whose transfers were bungled either through slipshod paperwork or through the fudging of said paperwork. The case of Ben Lederman has already been examined in The New York Times, in case you missed it, and since that article was written, Lederman has moved back to the United States with the short-term goal of competing locally in Florida before returning to Spain later this year. The question now will certainly be whether or not he’ll be allowed even to train at La Masia. And that raises the question of what in the world FIFA thinks Article 19 is designed to do.
Ostensibly it is a fantastic rule that keeps dodgy agents from signing poor kids in developing nations up for training programs in Europe and then, if they’re not selected to be part of a club’s youth program, dumping them on the streets and forgetting about them. This was a big problem for years and I’m not sure I’ve found anyone against putting a stop to that practice, much less now that it seems to be on the considerable wane thanks to FIFA’s rather strict enforcement of that rule and its commensurate amount of paperwork. The question instead is whether it is unintentionally placing a burden on the movement of others.
The standard argument is that parents have the right to search for the best developmental possibilities for their children and if they choose football as that route, it only makes sense that a club like Barcelona would be on their shortlist. Assuming no financial help from the clubs, which would be against Article 19, the circumstances in which a player like Lederman appear to be either sacrifices by the families or luck in having the right connections to move to a new country and a new job in order to give their children a shot at professional glory (and the financial rewards incumbent with that, of course). Instead of leaving it up to chance on whether or not their child would make it at a club after they’ve gone through the expense and hassle of moving across the world, a family like the Ledermans would be silly not to try and get the kid a trial and a place at the academy they’re interested in. FIFA, the argument goes, forgets that these are kids whose private lives include their families and a stable support network and they’re unfairly keeping them from developing to the best of their abilities because of their birthplace.
The other type of player that this affects is Patrice Sousia, an Eto’o Foundation graduate who turns 18 in 2017 and whose family is not present in Barcelona. Sousia is one of the original transfers that caused Barcelona’s ban and, like Ben Lederman, he was forced to withdraw from competition, but was still living at La Masia and training regularly. This latest ruling has meant that he’s moved out of La Masia and into the family home of a fellow Masia player. On the face of it, this is a different situation than Lederman’s only in that the family is not present, but there are a few other factors to consider. First, the legitimacy of the Eto’o Foundation is called into question simply because any youth products that come out of that organization are not considered worthy of places in European academies, despite the Eto’o Foundation’s stated intent of “continu[ing] their education, counselling, mentoring and daily monitoring in Spain.” That is, after they’ve signed with academies, they are not simply gone from the Eto’o Foundation books, but are given the exact support that Article 19 is designed to ensure.
Both Lederman and Sousia have a support network and were receiving not only training on the football field, but as part of La Masia were also receiving an education. If FIFA wishes to ban all foreign transfers of minors, it appears capable of doing so, but that is not the stated goal of Article 19, though FIFA now appears to be attempting to make it just that. If Lederman’s family can get job offers in Barcelona that are unrelated to football, he is at least theoretically capable of moving back to Spain and joining La Masia, but Sousia does not appear to have that option. Furthermore, unless FIFA can show that La Masia discards children who do not meet sporting criteria—and specifically I am under the impression that La Masia requires players to go to school until they are 18 and provides for players like Sousia in terms of meals, lodging, and support—it seems counterproductive to restrict access to education and a positive environment.
Article 19 must be amended to reflect the reality of the situation on the ground. FIFA needs to set up a system in which they approve organizations like the Eto’o Foundation (with regular audits to ensure continued adherence to the standards required to receive such an approval in the first place) that are then able to provide for the educational, emotional, and daily life support for children in situations like Patrice Sousia. Removing Sousia’s ability to live and train with his fellow players and students is tantamount to FIFA drawing a line in the sand where no line needs to be drawn. It is also a case of double jeopardy. Barcelona abided by the rules set forth for them, but now the only people who will suffer because FIFA feels embarrassed by the way they didn’t think through their rules are the kids the rule was ostensibly set up to protect. Sousia was already not playing, but was still receiving educational and living support from the club anyway. Now he won’t be able to receive either, which hurts only Patrice Sousia. And FIFA’s credibility.