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Protecting young players or rich clubs?
by Paul Gardner, July 14th, 2008 7AM
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A rather misleading statement has been released by UEFA. Actually, it was not released, it escaped: the London Sunday Telegraph got hold of what it described as the "confidential document," designed apparently for the big-shot politicians of the European Union.

The report comes over the name of UEFA President Michel Platini, and one of its main concerns is to stop the transfer of teenage players.

So far so good. In fact, FIFA's statutes already have a regulation banning such transfers internationally -- but the ban cannot be applied within the EU -- where the EU laws simply forbid such a restriction.

UEFA wants to change that, and is asking the EU to stop the trade in teenagers. Which is where things get a bit confusing. The Telegraph story quotes Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, president of Bayern Munich as saying "We have to protect these players."

The implication -- and it is backed up by the document, which calls for concrete proposals to be developed to prevent "the trafficking and exploitation of young players" -- is that it is the welfare of the young players that is the aim of the called-for legislation.

Not quite. The legal protection that is being sought is for the clubs that train the youngsters. Training a young player takes a lot of money these days -- the running of youth academies is a sizable figure in most clubs' budgets. So young players are seen as an investment, and it has become something of a problem for the clubs to hang on to that investment.

At the moment, there is little to stop another club coming along and making overtures to a youngster -- or more likely his parents -- explaining how much better off the boy would be if he switched clubs. If the boy -- or his parents -- decide to switch, there is not much the original club can do about it.

The classic case -- so far -- was Arsenal's poaching of Cesc Fabregas, whisked away from Barcelona at age 16. Again, FIFA has, in its statutes, an elaborate set of rules for "Payment of training compensation" -- including a rather vague method of calculating how much should be paid (based on "the costs that would have been incurred by the new club if it had trained the player itself.")

If the clubs cannot agree on a figure, there is a FIFA Dispute Resolution Chamber that can settle matters. Or maybe not, for this is all a gentlemen's agreement.

Usually, it is the smaller clubs that complain: they produce players, only to have them kidnapped by the big guys -- who, of course, can come in with head-turning offers of fame and glory, not to mention visions of what is known as "financial security."

Usually -- but not always; the Fabregas case shows that the big guys won't hesitate to feed off each other.

Platini and UEFA want to put a stop to all of that -- to simply ban teenage transfers altogether, and to give the ban some legal power that would ensure compliance.

That has been a problem with the FIFA regulation on international transfers. In fact, I am not aware that the ban has ever been invoked, even though there have been cases where it surely should have been. The most celebrated involved -- again -- Arsenal. Immediately after the 2005 U-17 World Cup, Arsenal was rumored to have signed Carlos Vela from the champions, Mexico. Vela, only 16, was a Chivas Guadalajara player. And Chivas made no secret that they had sold him. Arsenal kept mum, never confirming or denying the signing. Vela moved to Europe (which, given his age, should not have been permitted) but not to Arsenal. He went to Celta Vigo in Spain. On loan, it was said, from Arsenal. He later moved to second division clubs Salamanca and Osasuna. It is only this year that Arsenal has openly spoken of him as its player.

In other words, the FIFA regulation was blatantly contravened by Arsenal -- and Arsenal's contravention was then blatantly ignored by FIFA.

One suspects that FIFA turned a blind eye because it knows that its regulation is unenforceable. Anyway, it was not drawn up to prevent major clubs like Arsenal and Chivas doing business. It was designed to stop the real exploitation of young boys by unlicensed agents (unlicensed by FIFA, that is) who were luring groups of hopeful African and South American boys to Europe, and then simply abandoning them if things didn't work out. To stop that sort of abuse is a praiseworthy aim, and possibly the FIFA regulation has served as a deterrent to such agents.

But if the regulation is designed only to protect the clubs' investment of money in a boy's training, it is much harder to sustain the argument that it should be backed by government power, which is what UEFA (and no doubt FIFA) is asking of the EU.

To take the Vela case. Under FIFA rules, it should not have happened. But what harm was done by it? Is not Vela now better off as a potential Arsenal star than he would have been had he stayed in Mexico? Is UEFA, or FIFA, really entitled to tell a young player -- or his parents -- that he is not allowed to accept what looks like the best deal?

It seems to me that attempting to impose strict limits on the movement of teenage players from one club to another -- even should the restrictions be granted legal status -- is likely to cause more problems than it solves.

Even if a suitable system of monetary compensation can be worked out, to which all clubs agree, I doubt that there's ever going to be an easy answer to this one. Even at the very top level, it's a mess. Can Manchester United hold on to Cristiano Ronaldo, if he's made up his mind he wants to move Real Madrid?

At that point, regardless of Man U having right on its side (Ronaldo's signed contract) does it make any sense to retain a player who wants to be elsewhere?

Yes, Ronaldo would be breaking his contract if he moved. But that is hardly something unknown in soccer (particularly among coaches). And Man U would be handsomely rewarded for that.

Sepp Blatter has had his say and has -- probably unwisely -- referred to "slavery" when discussing the power of clubs to move players around. People will laugh at that of course -- whatever kind of slaves are these earning up to $250,000 a week?

But slaves or not, they must be allowed their rights. Including having a say in where they want to work. And including the right to change their minds. There's nothing more that needs to be said.

Is that, then, a satisfactory conclusion? No, of course not. But let's be clear about one thing: this is primarily a squabble amongst the very rich. And -- maybe you feel the same -- I'm never delighted when I see the rich and powerful trying to bend the law, trying to get special treatment. The EU should tell UEFA and Platini to obey the same laws that apply to everyone else.


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