How FIFA rules hurt immigrant children in the USA

By Mike Woitalla

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.

34 comments about "How FIFA rules hurt immigrant children in the USA ".
  1. Kent James, April 7, 2017 at 3:24 p.m.

    As someone who appreciates how bureaucratic regulation can be useful to ensure fair competition and protect kids, this is obviously absurd. Such documentation should only be required of kids who are being developed by professional clubs. For the rest, as long as the age is documented accurately, let 'em play!

  2. Ric Fonseca, April 7, 2017 at 3:35 p.m.

    Ya gotta be kidding, right???? And here I thought that some 30+ years ago, the overreaching efforts by a local ayso district commissioner's demand that a U.S. born player of Mexican parents, present his birth certificate before she allowed him to play in a playoff game was far reaching and out of line (BTW, I was the coach and we won the game, but the boy's parents opted to go to an unaffiliated local Mexican league where I heard he flourished and went on to play high school and college ball!) But to read this, FIFA-US Soccer bull caca, is just that bullcrap and it stinks of high heaven. And lastly, it it any wonder why in some Mexican/Latino/Hispanic communities do not even want to participate in a US Soccer affiliated/registered league?

  3. Tyler Dennis, April 7, 2017 at 3:54 p.m.

    US Socxer doesn't abide by the FIFA bylaw that mandates promotion/relagation, so why dont they just ignore this inane rule too?

    Maybe because the rule doesn't effect the surbuban kids that US Soccer prioritizes?

  4. Mike Calcaterra, April 7, 2017 at 4:21 p.m.

    Here in Florida we have been dealing with undocumented players for a long time. 20 years ago I took a team of 14 and under boys to Sarasota for a league match. We showed up, the referees showed up and, as the referee was about to deem the match a forfeit, the other team drove up. Not the parents or the coaches. The players drove up. I challenged the credentials and they all produced FYSA player passes. A couple had to surrender their wedding rings for the match. The game started and it was boys against men. Ten minutes into the game we forfeited the match so that we could accompany one of our boys to the emergency room. The loss was overturned, the Sarasota team disqualified and the injured boy only missed two weeks of school and the remainder of the season. It was far from the only problem. I coached and scholarshiped many Latino boys and girls and enjoyed working with them, but the portrayal here as everything with undocumented players is rainbows and unicorns is not uniformly reflected in the world.

  5. R2 Dad, April 7, 2017 at 5:43 p.m.

    As far as I know, both regional leagues in my my state ignore this stuff. Of course, this is California where all the laws we don't like we ignore since we're following the example of previous presidents, governors, mayors and neighbors (and now the senate/supreme court, too!). We have several undocumented players on my kid's team and it's been a non-issue. If I had to hazard a guess, 15-20% of all league players on the boys side are not "properly" documented. Now that Germany/EU and US/NAFTA have destroyed all semblance of immigration management, FIFA is going to have a hell of a time walking this back to something more practical.

  6. Ric Fonseca replied, April 8, 2017 at 2:23 p.m.

    R2D2: Ha, I've been a Californian since 1950, and gee whizz and golly-gee, we Californios do such dastardly things??? Well I do declare Homers, that we folks way out west kinda like to do our own thang, like play futbol-soccer and not affiliate with the rest of the folks in the other 49 states, but know what Pop? I wonder where the Cal South (youth branch) and ayso say about this, or if they even apply these crazy and loco rules? Betcha they don't!!! Oh, and hey, will FIFA, USSoccer, et al, now call out for ICE to patrol the fields? What if some ICE types masquerade as game officials, ref, RA's etc, so they can round up the kid's parents? Will this also mean a reduction of parental support of their kids playing a simple sport of soccer? Does it apply to baseball, etc? One would think that Gulati would know better, or is he complicit with FIFA and Infantino and angling for a future FIFA employment opportunity???

  7. Ginger Peeler replied, April 8, 2017 at 9:17 p.m.

    Around 1983, a couple seasons after my daughter began playing, I volunteered, with another woman, to coach and to handle Registrar duties for the recreational CYSA teams in one inland San Diego community. We registered 500-some children each season. One of us would register the boys, the other the girls for one season and then we'd switch responsibilities the next season. When my daughter made the traveling team a couple years later, I became that league's registrar for the U-12 to U-19 boys' and girls' A and B teams. I don't remember birth certificates being a big deal for the rec players, but they were VERY important for the traveling teams. The coaches would give me the paperwork to process so I could get their player cards printed out and sent from headquarters in Los Angeles. However, a ot of parents would give me the hospital certificate, thinking that was a birth certificate. I was on the phone often, explaining what a birth certificate looked like and how to get one. And then they would give me a copy. It usually took a week or 2 to get it. When I finally had all of the correct information on all the players, it would be sent to L.A. My files included the applications, and birth certificates for all of the players on all of the teams. My memory is a little fuzzy, but I believe I gave the coaches copies of their players' birth certificates, along with their player cards after I got them from L.A., since some of our players were occasionally challenged by opposing coaches. So, it wasn't a piece of cake even back then, and I imagine it's become more strict over the years. However, the FIFA regulations make it all but impossible to get a player's card for an immigrant player. Whoever came up with the requirements didn't think it through. They need to get their act together and fix this, or the U.S. should ask for a special dispensation from FIFA.

  8. Nick Daverese, April 7, 2017 at 7:10 p.m.

    If you have a kid living in NJ he can't play in the NY state cup. If he does and is found out your team takes a forfiet.

  9. Bruce Gowan, April 7, 2017 at 7:44 p.m.

    Youth soccer leagues do not observe FIFA laws for field size, number of players, substitutions and length of games to name a few exceptions that youth soccer takes. Some but not all of the requirements stated in the article are necessary to prevent professional players from other countries visiting the US and playing in youth contests. It has happened here in Florida.

  10. Gary Young, April 8, 2017 at 9:23 a.m.

    This sounds like racism to me. Ussf doesn't enforce Training Compensation that are very clear under Fifa ruling. Why is the refugee playing a bigger deal? Also, there are quite a few DAs that have foreign players under residency and are here solely for that reason. The DA is the Ussf baby and is closely monitored by them. Thats ok but refugees in Maryland are not?

  11. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, April 10, 2017 at 4:18 p.m.

    How is it racism? It's a FIFA rule which is why the USSF is enforcing it. It's ridiculous that FIFA requires all of this but I don't see that the USSF has a choice.

  12. Gary Young replied, April 11, 2017 at 11:15 a.m.

    In Baltimore those refugees are black and someone must have protested. The full length of the Fifa law is being applied by Ussf there. That would be ok if they did the same for their own DAs where you have foreign born players playing in the DA. Would also be ok if they at keast acknowledged the Fifa extremely clear rule on Training Compensation that should be paid by all it's members and that includes MLS.

  13. Gary Young replied, April 11, 2017 at 11:16 a.m.

    Thats called cherry picking

  14. barry politi, April 8, 2017 at 1:50 p.m.

    You have to be kiding? What a bunch of garbage. USSF, Sunil and FIFA are all a bunch of losers.

  15. barry politi, April 8, 2017 at 1:52 p.m.

    Like many have been saying. We need a youth organization that is not part of USSF and that actually cares about kids.

  16. Ric Fonseca, April 8, 2017 at 2:27 p.m.

    I forgot to include a very important question, and I hope and trust that Mike W can answer: Are there any statistical or actual numbers on just how many kids have been affected by this dastardly rule, just exactly where (states, associations) is it being enforced and if there are, where might one acquire the data? What do US Youth Soccer and ayso stand on this???

  17. James Madison, April 8, 2017 at 7 p.m.

    What in the world is the justification for different requirements for immigrant children than for domestically born children. Both parents? Both parents work? Justification for not working? Come on!

  18. Brian McLindsay, April 8, 2017 at 7:06 p.m.

    I have in the past not been a fan of FIFA or F1's FIA rules implementation as both seemed casual and arbitrary in their enforcement of those rules. However anyone around youth soccer for more than a year or two will have a couple of age related stories to tell about players, teams or even whole clubs. If not for the blatant and obvious cheating we have all seen, maybe I would call this rule unfair, however we shouldn't forget how unfair it has been for the documented players who have been simply outmatched because of poor or no documentation.

    Win at all costs has a cost, and it might not be fair.

  19. Mark Konty, April 8, 2017 at 11:44 p.m.

    All we ask for is proof of age, the same thing we ask from American-born players.

  20. Nick Daverese, April 9, 2017 at 4:48 a.m.

    Exactly Mark but people can even mess that up. Like the age change if a kid misses the team by a month or two there are ways of changing a copy of the birth certificate to read the date you want it to read. So you always want to see the original. Even that can be changed with a really good copy machine like travel agents have.

  21. Nick Daverese, April 9, 2017 at 4:54 a.m.

    Parents are something. A friend of mine are putting 2 youth teams in the same age group. He is trying to even match both teams. He was calling 1 team the A team and the other one the B team. Parents want their little darling on the A team because as we all know. A is always better the B. I told him put his best players on the B team. See if the parents notice :)

    One year we did not have enough players to make two teams. So we put our best players on the B team. So they could play on both teams. You can play up but not down,

  22. Scott Johnson replied, April 10, 2017 at 12:33 p.m.

    If you are going to field two teams of equal ability, rather than one stronger and one weaker, find something else to call them other than "A" or "B". "Black" and "white", "United" and "City", or whatever else. But A/B, Gold/Silver, etc. suggest a pecking order even if none exists.

  23. Jay Wall, April 10, 2017 at 8:26 a.m.

    In our area overage players use their cousins, siblings and friends credentials to register to play on youth teams; or they simply buy documents on the street. They drive themseleves to games in age groups to young for players to drive. They sport beards. They try to pick-up sisters of opponents on the side line. They strip off their uniforms at games end and change to street shoes. Some drink in the parking lot. And when they are discovered as being overage they are a nightmare for the assoctaion, league, club and coach . . . games are forfeited and sometimes coaches are de-coached because everyone assumes they knew the players were overage. Welcome to the world of youth sports where good sportsmanship and rules mean nothing.

  24. Gary Young, April 10, 2017 at 12:10 p.m.

    So teams cheat. Whats new in America? What does that have to do with article? Are all of you saying that Nonwhite teams cheat so this is a good rule? All depends on what you call cheating. To me cheating is poaching players at no cost from smaller clubs that developed them. So if you all agree with this rule to help you justify ages and limit cheating how come you are not as concerned with clubs poaching players to then claim them as their own products or Homegrowns?

  25. Nick Daverese, April 10, 2017 at 5:43 p.m.

    The reason clubs can poach players from other clubs who developed them for nothing is because of lawyers. There was a time if a player was with a club that developed them. That development club own the rights to that player. They could not leave that club and play for a new club. Without a release from the club who developed them. If the club decided to release them the club that wanted them with have to pay a certain amount of money for ever year the player was with them. Even then they had to wait a year before they could play for them. Lawyers changed all that.

  26. Gary Young replied, April 10, 2017 at 6:53 p.m.

    Much better system based on respect.

  27. Scott Johnson replied, April 11, 2017 at 4:12 p.m.

    If the club is playing the player, or at least providing an "advance" of some sort (compensation in the form of training now, in anticipation of a share of a possible reward later), I have no problem with this. Same as you can't sign a book deal with one publisher, use their editors and spend their advance, and then at the last minute change to a different publisher. For pay-to-play clubs, OTOH, this would be an outrageous abuse of market power--if the parents pay for the training, the club has no expectation of a windfall. Imagine if I had to get McDonald's permission and wait a year to have a burger at Burger King.

  28. Gary Young replied, April 11, 2017 at 4:24 p.m.

    Scott, you just refuse to understand how all this works. Why in Usa do we act like we are special case in everything? Listen to these facts. 1. Pay to play clubs exist everywhere in the world where Training Compensation is paid. 2. All those pay to play clubs charge lower the better talent they get with some or many playing and training for free. 3. The more money those clubs get from Training Compensation and Transfer % the better players they attract which means the more they invest in those players which also means that the more cost effective to the parents they become. Moral of story: the more money you make from your players going pro the better the players they will attract and the more you will be able to offer free play which also means the better the training and philosphy will be as it will ve more oriented towards player development and not what we have always had, team building/garbage.

  29. Gary Young replied, April 11, 2017 at 4:27 p.m.

    Why should Mls owners use tax payer money to build their stadiums if they will not share the profits with those tax payers directly? Our entire political system runs this way and we act like we are special case? Come on now. If anything this system will expose the big clubs that dont develop top players. All those big clubs do is promote that the rich kids got into College but dont tell you that they are paying full fees or most of it.

  30. Ron L, April 11, 2017 at 3:06 p.m.

    It seems that this article is asking that the USA disregard the rules that everyone else has been mandated to use so we can use Mexican players. Why is it we can not expect the Mexican government to have proper documentation for every citizen? Are we saying we must pity them because they can't establish proper government infrastructure? The Mexican government is not poor. Their people need to rise up and take responsibility of their government instead and just raising their hands and asking that the rules be changed for them.

  31. Gary Young replied, April 11, 2017 at 3:22 p.m.

    Ron, do you think Ussf should that same responsability and force Mls to pay Training Compensation and transfer % to youth clubs as mandated by Fifa, the organization they both are under?

  32. Nick Daverese, April 11, 2017 at 6:03 p.m.

    When we did teams it was an honor for a player to play for our club. Plus it was not pay to play. It cost parents nothing. Most clubs were sponsored by business bars and restraunts. A lot of our coaches owned businesses we help pay for it. We also did not receive compensation to coach except the coach who managed the adult team. It was a big owner to manage that team. On the money we made for doing it. We spent it on the players. We had man of the year dinner dances to help finance the club. We did pay for some trainers but they had to be exceptional to get paid.

    So it was very different then it is today. I think it was more fun.

  33. GA Soccer Forum, April 13, 2017 at 10:13 a.m.

    I"m assuming on DA checks for these documents, the local youth u9-u11, and state league doesn't even check birth certificates, its up to the team manager to verify the document.

    I think with RPL, Birth certificates might get uploaded in the system, but I'm not certain.

  34. Karen Wagner, August 10, 2017 at 11:11 a.m.

    As a parent of four children, two are adopted from foreign countries, just for them to play soccer have to provide a report card, over and above the regular pages we have already submitted. MSYSA tells me that it is necessary. I recent the fact that my adopted child is treated differently from other adopted children from the states. This is discrimination at a very young age, no wonder our country still discriminates against other countries.

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