There are children in the USA who aren’t allowed to play in their local soccer league because FIFA, based in Switzerland, isn’t satisfied with their documentation.
Here’s a scenario of what’s been happening:
A team wants to sign up a kid, age 11 or as old as 17, who moved to the USA after his 10th birthday.
Documents that the child must produce, in addition to a birth certificate and passport, to play in a U.S. Soccer Federation-sanctioned league (which is most youth leagues in the USA), include:
• Both parents’ passports.
• Both parents’ work visas.
• Both parents’ proof of employment.
• If one of the parents does not work, he or she must send a signed statement explaining why he or she is not employed.
Bear with me, because we’re just getting started. This is about U.S. Soccer adhering to FIFA’s “Minors International Clearance Process.”
• For the player’s parents to prove employment, they must submit a verification letter confirming the employment start date, the nature of the work performed, and the term of the employment (ongoing or contracted), or an offer letter that is signed and verified by the employer, pay stubs are not accepted).
• The player’s parents must provide a lease or mortgage agreement for proof of residence, and include name(s) of occupants, residence start date, and address.
• If that child’s birth certificate isn’t in one of the four FIFA languages -- English, French, German or Spanish -- he must submit the original birth certificate with a certified translation in one of the four FIFA languages.
FIFA is soccer’s world governing body. It regulates the registration of youth players as part of its “Protection of Minors” quest. It does not allow “international transfers” of players under 18 unless the “player's parents move to the country in which the new club is located for reasons not linked to soccer.”
The reason for this stems from what had been described as human trafficking in soccer. In FIFA’s words, “In the past, the trafficking of young players to clubs, mainly in Europe, by unscrupulous persons led to some minors, whose talent may not have met the expectations of the respective clubs, being virtually abandoned on the streets in foreign countries.”
Even though this hasn’t happened in the USA, U.S. Soccer still requires foreign-born players to go through the arduous “Minors International Clearance Process,” because U.S. Soccer is a FIFA member.
So when an immigrant player, or an exchange student, for example, wants to sign up for a U.S. Soccer-affiliated league, that player must go through the FIFA Transfer Matching System (TMS).
The impact hit harshly in Maryland when the cost-free Soccer Without Borders program tried to register its players in a league affiliated with the Maryland State Youth Soccer Association (MSYSA), which is under the umbrella of U.S. Soccer.
“As an organization that serves newcomer refugee, asylee and immigrant youth, all of our players fall into the category of youth born outside the United States,” wrote Casey Thomas, Director of Soccer Without Borders Baltimore. “According to MSYSA, this means that the International Clearance process -- the process by which FIFA approves refugee, asylee and immigrant youth to play in their new community -- is required for all 56 of our players.”
Obviously, providing all the documentation demanded by FIFA is difficult.
“Our first attempt to meet these requirements included asking the kids to bring us the required documents (often their families’ only legal identification)," says Thomas. "Not surprisingly, this effort resulted in minimal success. Next, we spent weeks going to every player’s house after practice, which took several weeks to reach everyone at a reasonable hour after evening practices and often required multiple trips to the same houses. Documents were copied, sent to the registrar at MSYSA, who then passed them to U.S. Soccer, who then passed them to FIFA for approval.”
It should be easy to sign up a kid for a sports league in the USA, and it usually is. A parent or guardian fills out the registration application, provides proof of age, agrees to the waiver, provides emergency contacts. And provides whatever other information that league deems necessary.
Instead, the kids in Baltimore are prevented from playing because of a FIFA regulation for reasons irrelevant to their situation. For the 13 players for whom SWD was able gather and submit documentation, after waiting more than a month, none of the minors were cleared by FIFA to play in the league. Soccer Without Borders said it had gathered "complete files" on the 13 players, but was told to collect additional documents from the under-18 players.
“Our players’ families are not eager to share such personal information, and the language barrier makes it a challenge for us to explain the need for these documents -- especially for something as simple as playing soccer,” explains Thomas. “While there is an understandable need to verify the age of the player, many refugees and unaccompanied minors do not have these original documents.”
Players such as the Soccer Without Borders Baltimore kids would not be breaking international transfer rules by playing in a local American youth soccer league. But FIFA has sidelined them by inflicting an unreasonable registration process on them.
“For many of my immigrant players, soccer is one of the only things that brings them joy -- and they are giving up on their hopes of playing on our team because of the burden of proof they’re being asked to provide,” says Thomas. “For those in single-parent families, the burden is essentially insurmountable, and puts our staff in the impossible position of asking for deeply personal information across language barriers.”
Of course, it’s absurd that someone in Switzerland is denying Baltimore children from playing Maryland league soccer. But FIFA’s orders are followed by U.S. Soccer and the MSYSA is obligated to adhere to U.S. Soccer.
It should not be difficult for FIFA, which has an annual revenue of more than $1 billion, to come up with a registration process purported to protect children that doesn’t create obstacles for organizations like Soccer Without Borders.
Some common sense, a human touch, and a little research instead of an unreasonable demand for documents is not too much to ask from FIFA.
Something as simple as playing soccer should not be a difficult process.