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Soccer’s trade in young talent

Barcelona’s transfer ban is FIFA’s attempt to protect minors from abuse by Europe’s big sides

Children playing soccer in South Africa.
Children playing soccer in South Africa.AFP

Despite being aged just 21, Pascal Alima has already played professional soccer on three continents. After an adolescence spent on training grounds in Brazil, Argentina and Spain, his career took a nosedive when his agent lied to an Argentinean club, claiming that the youngster was an orphan. Still hopeful that he can break into the big time, Alima keeps fit by turning out for CD Canillas, a Madrid side that plays in the depths of the lower leagues.

The trade in young talent like Alima is under scrutiny after FIFA imposed a year’s transfer ban on Barcelona for signing under-age internationals. Clubs and agents stand accused of ruining the lives of young hopefuls in Africa and Latin America, offering them the chance of playing for a major side, and then abandoning them if things don’t work out. “Agents offer kids the opportunity to try out for the big European teams, and when they fail, they have been known to leave them stranded here, without even a ticket home,” says Javier Rodríguez Ten, a specialist in sports legislation.

Alima left his home in Cameroon at the age of 14 for Brazil, training for four months with Cruzeiro. There he met an Argentinean agent who took over his affairs. He went back to Cameroon, and then headed for Argentina in 2009 to join Tigre. “The first problem is the language. I didn’t understand what the coaches were telling me to do, so I would have to ask my teammates how to do the exercise,” he says. After a year in Argentina, his agent told him he had the opportunity to sign for Banfield in Buenos Aires, but because of his age, he would have to say that he was an orphan. He talked to his parents, who were prepared to forge the necessary documents to further their son’s career. Meanwhile, the agent was pressuring him, saying he would be sent back to Cameroon if he didn’t agree to the scheme. In the end, Alima decided against it, and returned home.

The first problem is the language. I didn’t understand what the coaches were saying”

FIFA has finally begun to face up to the scale of the problem of trafficking in young soccer players, and imposed a ban on any signings of under-18s except when the boy’s parents move to another country for reasons not related to their son’s career; when the transfer takes place within the EU or European Economic Space, as long as the player is aged over 16; or when the player’s home and the club are no more than 50 kilometers apart, even if in different countries.

Mohamed Chakkar, now aged 24, left his home in Morocco aged 17 to come to Spain, where an agent had organized a try-out for Swiss side BSC Young Boys. When he got to Bern, he was met by an agent who demanded €200 for accompanying him to the club. “I didn’t have any money, but my agent in Spain told me that I had to pay. I had to sleep in the street for two days,” says Chakkar.

But FIFA’s decision has been criticized by some. “Why not allow a minor to move to another country such as Spain if he can have a better education? I have known a lot of minors living in terrible conditions in their home countries who have been refused the opportunity to lead a better life,” says Maite Nadal, a specialist in sports law.

When Mohamed Chakkar went for a try-out in Bern, he was met by an agent who demanded €200

Chakkar’s dream of a career in soccer now seems over, and he is currently earning a living making pizzas in Madrid: “After all that happened I just decided to throw in the towel. If a side comes looking for me, fine: if not, that’s also fine.”

FIFA’s decision illustrates the complexities of licensing overseas minors to play soccer in Spain. To get a license to play in the Spanish leagues, the federation requires an International Transfer Certificate from the country of origin, along with FIFA approval, and the use of its Transfer Matching System to monitor the process. Young overseas players tend to play for smaller sides in the regions, each of which have their own soccer federations, which issue licenses. “In theory, a regional federation goes through the national federation to ask FIFA to verify any exemptions to the ban on under-18 transfers. But this doesn’t always happen. There are a great many young immigrants playing soccer here,” says Rodríguez Ten.

“The fact that the beginning of the licensing process begins at the regional level makes things very complicated, because there is no direct relationship between the Spanish Soccer Federation and players from abroad,” says Ten. If Barcelona signs a player, unless he is playing at national level, the regional federation, in this case Catalonia, is responsible for initiating proceedings. “The problem is that this takes time and requires a lot of form filling, which is why regional federations sometimes sign players without having gone through the proper procedures. It’s often done with the best intentions, to hold on to the player, to help him settle in quickly. And all the requisites will have been met, but it won’t have gone through FIFA,” says Rodríguez.

Why not allow a minor to move to another country if they can have a better education”

So where does the responsibility of each link in the chain begin and end? “The club needs to know that it is requesting a license for a foreigner, and that this will mean presenting a series of documents; if the side has asked for a license without presenting the necessary documentation, it is in the wrong, even if the license is issued,” says Rodríguez. “That said, if the club can prove that it acted in good faith, then it’s the federation that is responsible.”

FIFA has fined the Spanish Soccer Federation €410,000 over the Barcelona case, although the extent of its culpability is debatable. “The federations are just moving the paperwork on, but they are responsible because they issue the license,” says Rodríguez. The Spanish federation may not have knowingly done anything wrong, because the regional federation did not inform it, but it will have to pay greater attention in future, because FIFA doesn’t care how Spanish soccer is structured: the federation is responsible for making sure the rules are followed.”

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