Import and export

With recent controversy surrounding English clubs signing Europe's young talent before they turn professional, Neil Rose looks at FIFA's plans to protect Europe's schoolboy stars

The furore over French teenager Paul Pogba – with Le Havre accusing Man Utd of stealing him – is just the latest controversy thrown up by English clubs signing the cream of foreign youth. United insist that they complied with UEFA guidelines in signing the 16-year-old and the row is reminiscent of that caused by their capture of Federico Macheda from Lazio in 2007, or Arsenal’s of Cesc Fàbregas, or several other players, mainly by the Big Four. Of course, signing players before they can pen a professional contract is not just an English pursuit – French clubs themselves have plundered Africa for a stream of young players. With transfer fees spiralling ever higher the appeal of relatively cheap, if raw, foreign talent is growing.

But so are moves to put an end to the practice. The football authorities worry that schoolboys are being lured from their homes and families to move abroad with the promise of a lucrative professional contract that often never materialises. Or, to put it in the ever understated words of Sepp Blatter at June’s FIFA Congress: “It is our duty to the youth of the world to protect young players. We must do it together. Stop the slavery of these young players.” The issue has now reached the European courts. Olivier Bernard’s legacy could be greater in the law than on the field, if a recent preliminary ruling concerning his 1997 move from Lyon to Newcastle is anything to go by.

The decision, which has still to be confirmed by the European Court of Justice, upheld French rules of the time which required the club that signed a young player to compensate the club that trained him. Even though this is technically a restriction on workers’ freedom of movement around the European Union, the judge said it was justified because the rules encouraged clubs to invest in young players. However, the judge also limited the compensation to training costs, saying that basing it on the player’s prospective earnings or on the club’s possible loss of profit would not be acceptable.

FIFA rules on this were introduced in 2001, partly to discourage poaching. The importance of Bernard’s case is not so much in its facts – which are no longer relevant – but in not upsetting the FIFA regime. This comes at a time when FIFA has just beefed up the protection of minors, including the creation of a new committee to examine every international transfer involving a player under 18 years old and first registration of a player in a country of which he is not a national (reflecting the growing trade in really young players). It has also increased the compensation payable for players aged between 12 and 15.

FIFA bans the international transfer of minors, subject to three exceptions. The first is where the player’s parents move countries “for reasons not connected with football”, although it is thought this is abused by clubs finding parents jobs and the national associations not investigating too closely. The second is where the player and club are each within 50km of the same border. The final one is in Europe, where freedom of movement applies to workers (including footballers) from the age of 16.

But UEFA president Michel Platini is trying to change this. In March, the professional football strategy council – made up of associations, clubs, leagues and players – voted to support the principle of extending the general ban to Europe. Those present included Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon, Premier League chairman Sir Dave Richards, the SPL’s Lex Gold and the PFA deputy chief executive at the time, Mick McGuire.

Changing this rule is not within UEFA’s gift, however – it requires pan-EU agreement. The European Commission has said it will take this forward if convinced such a move would achieve the desired objective, while a meeting of European sports ministers at the end of 2008 agreed that “the development of young sportsmen and women, and the health of sport as a whole, is improved by a stable training and education period in which young sportsmen and women are not incited to move abroad too early”.

So the wind appears to be with the football authorities and will be further strengthened if Blatter’s campaign for the 6-plus-5 rule continues to gain purchase, putting greater emphasis on bringing through local players. “The question of minors is above all a moral and ethical issue,” said Platini, using two words you do not hear all that often in football. “We have a duty to take concrete steps to protect young players and training clubs.”

From WSC 272 October 2009