A week and a bit ago FIFA declared new transfer rulings for the transfer of players under the age of 18. From January 1st 2009, a committee will be set up with the sole purpose of reviewing each and every international transfer involving players of such age. FIFA is also clamping down on unofficial academies – particularly in Africa and Asia – and forcing them to become FIFA-recognised, which will hopefully stop the exploitation of youngsters in poorer countries.
They also aim for longer contracts to be signed for 16-18 year-olds to tie them to their clubs for longer periods to continue development and reward clubs who successfully produce vast numbers of youngsters, but have not been able to hold onto them. The question is whether the new measures will actually mean anything at all. For as long as anyone can remember, particularly since the turn of the century, clubs have circumvented existing rules in order to acquire young talent from around the globe. It’s commonplace in England in particular, where players from outside the EU will also have to qualify for a work permit – something footballers under the age of 18 simply won’t be able to get.
The examples are widespread and not surprising. It is alleged (what a fine phrase that is) that Arsenal, when seeking Nacer Barazite from NEC Nijmegen, were rebuffed in their initial approaches for the then-15 year-old, but duly persisted and offered his father a well-paid job in the Arsenal kitchen, and once the family had decided to move to the UK, Arsenal were then free to sign their player. Manchester United did similar this past summer with Roma’s Davide Petrucci, who rejected the Giallorossi’s ‘paltry’ professional contract offer to take considerably more as a scholar at Old Trafford, whilst the move occured under the pretense of hiring Signor Petrucci as a groundsman at the club.
It’s not even restricted to teenage footballers any more. Chelsea’s acquisition of 12 year-old Jeremy Boga from Marseille was easily found at major media sources, with French scout Guy Hillion being so brash as to deny the transfer, merely the moving of the Boga family to a new life in London, where their talented son could coincidentally join one of the biggest recruiters of overseas youth talent in the world over the last five years. Nobody was fooled, least of all FIFA, and it may have been the straw that broke their back, so to speak, in drawing up their new regulations.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Rules have been in place before, and savvy clubs find their ways to get around them. It’s not just restricted to the big clubs (see Portsmouth and Manchester City in England), nor is it an English-only phenomenon – the make-up of youth squads at the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Ajax, PSV, Sporting and others are far from local products exclusively. Who will be on the committee? Where will they be based? How often will they convene and how much clarity and access will they be able to have on a deal?
Who’s to say that the Boga family aren’t moving to the UK for job opportunities? These are the sort of questions FIFA will have to answer, and if you and I can pick holes in it as a casual observer, you can be sure that the clubs – for whom this is bread and butter – will have themselves prepared. The intention from FIFA is fine, and they naturally have to be seen to be doing something to protect the interests of productive academies who get raided every year (especially Dutch teams), but you can’t help but feel nothing’s going to change.
At the turn of the year you’ll see these rules come into effect, but you’ll also see Toni Sá join Chelsea from Benfica. He’s 15, and wants to move, having rejected Benfica’s contract offer.
Over to you, FIFA committee.