Foreigners, Agents & Minors: FIFA's Take

By Paul Gardner

Uncertainty would seem to be the only certainty on the soccer scene as I write this. The doubts start at the very top where the normally confident Sepp Blatter has reluctantly admitted that the plans for his treasured 6+5 scheme will have to be put on hold for the moment.

The idea was to require all club teams to field no more than five foreign players. There have always been doubts that the scheme would fly in Europe - where it would have most effect - because it surely contravenes the European Union labor laws. Blatter has always waved such objections aside as a trifling nuisance that would be overcome with ease.

But at FIFA's current Congress, being held in Nassau in the Bahamas, he found that the European delegates were not ready to vote for his scheme . . . because of the doubts about its legality. Before any vote, said UEFA chief Michel Platini, "we have to know if it's legal or illegal."

Blatter's response to this rebuff can only be described as bluster. Too many foreigners, says Blatter, is bad because "clubs need to keep their identities." But what evidence is there that clubs like Arsenal or Chelsea or Inter Milan, clubs that have for several seasons been fielding more foreigners than homegrown players, have lost their identities?

It is, in fact, one of the more remarkable facts about this comparatively new situation involving the free movement of foreign players that there has been virtually no protesting and complaining from the fans. The fact that Manchester United had only three English players (only half the number that Blatter's 6+5 would mandate) in its starting line up for last week's Champions League final did not deter 30,000 fans from traveling to Rome to support their team. The identity of the team may have taken on a new look, but it has certainly not been lost.

Possibly aware of the weakness of that argument, Blatter produced a second line of reasoning. Look at Spain, he said, which doesn't really need to be told what to do, where the number of foreigners is low, but the country is the European champion, and also now has, in Barcelona, the club championship as well. But no one is saying that the 6+5 - or, possibly, any other form of quota - will not work. The problem - the uncertainty - lies in its legality.

There is also considerable uncertainty in another area where FIFA would very much like to assert a controlling influence. The activities of player agents. FIFA's scheme to centrally register all agents throughout the world has collapsed entirely. FIFA admits that only about 25 percent of player trades now involve licensed agents, with the rest being conducted by "intermediaries" - who may be lawyers or relations or friends of the players - but who, quite definitely, don't have any sort of license. "There are a lot of intermediaries involved now," says FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke. "We are definitely not happy with what has happened and we have to tackle it."

Whether any of this really matters - other than in the sense that it is evidence of FIFA's failing authority - is ... well, it's uncertain. The most highly publicized of the "intermediary" cases has been that of the Argentine Carlos Tevez. He is on loan at ManU from West Ham United - but he is actually "owned" by an investment group. Is that legal, or at least, within FIFA regulations? Maybe yes, maybe no. ManU is hesitating to sign him permanently, citing difficulties of dealing with a "third party." Yet Tevez's Argentine partner Javier Mascherano, under identical circumstances, made a loan move from West Ham to Liverpool, and was then purchased outright without any difficulties.

There is further uncertainty to be found in another FIFA venture - another example of FIFA wanting to exercise a rather sweeping control over player movement. This time it concerns the international trading of players under the age of 18. FIFA has in place a regulation banning such moves. A questionable regulation that has never, to my knowledge, been enforced. Now FIFA says it is stepping up its surveillance of these trades. It wants to do what, in effect, it couldn't do with agents: to create a global registry - this time, of young players so that their movements can be tracked.

Of course the aims of the scheme - to protect minors from being exploited by (yes, that word again) "unlicensed" operators - are admirable. But the licensing of such operations, even of youth academies, is a tricky business, underlined by the rapid growth of unregistered academies in Africa.

And while FIFA discusses the matter, we have - right here in the law-abiding USA - the breaking news that Sebastian Lletget, a 16-year-old member of the American under-17 national team has signed for England's West Ham United, and is spending his time commuting between London and the U.S. academy in Bradenton. A flat-out contravention of the FIFA regulation. Maybe FIFA will do something about it, but I doubt it. There may be uncertainty here, but not much.

But all the uncertainties mentioned here are subsidiary to the biggest uncertainty of the lot: whether FIFA can hold on to the virtually dictatorial powers it has always - up till now - wielded over the global soccer scene.


2 comments about "Foreigners, Agents & Minors: FIFA's Take".
  1. Patrick Izzo, June 4, 2009 at 1:36 p.m.

    FIFA should just leave it all alone. The individual leagues should decide what is best for that league. The only thing that the fans care about is winning.

  2. Joseph Breault, June 4, 2009 at 7:05 p.m.

    If a player in the world of "football" wants to perfect his game to the highest level possible, Europe is not a want, but a necessity. The "Third World" developmental system in this country is unable to provide players the opportunities to develop, receive proper training and the challenge necessary to compete internationally.

    The EU is practicing the most blatant nationalism by limiting outside players to join clubs now. I know first hand the frustration of the requirments that prevent capable players from obtaining work permits. No other sport is so concerned over this "protection" of turf than football. Ameriican basketball, baseball are over run with international stars. The exploitation of "young" players by clubs and country an entirely seperate issue of character and ethics.

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