The debate about the transfer of under-18 players, while raging at football administration level for some time, was finally brought to the public attention in the past week following Chelsea’s heavy sanction by FIFA. The London club’s two window transfer ban for inducing Gaël Kakuta to leave Lens for England is perhaps the first shot in a war that is being incited by continental European clubs enraged principally by the actions of England’s major teams. At the heart of the debate are complex issues of youth employment, contracts, players’ rights and predatory clubs.
Motivated both to seek the best world talent and reduce their transfer fee burden, English clubs have been exploiting differences in employment law between the United Kingdom and European territories. Whereas the Premier League’s finest can sign a player onto a trainee contract before 16 years of age and enjoy the protection that it offers, clubs in France, Italy, Spain and Germany generally cannot.
Indeed, many continental clubs such as Barcelona, who lost Fabregas at 16, are able only to offer full professional contracts to players once they reach 16 years old, thereby risking losing the player on their 16th birthday. It’s a loophole that brought Cesc Fagregas, Federico Macheda, Giuseppe Rossi, Gerrard Pique and many others to England over the last few years. It is also this situation that has driven many clubs, especially those in France, to place their youth players on a ‘contract aspirant’ – a crude pre-contract agreement that is largely unenforceable in British law.
However, FIFA’s Dispute Resolution Committee ruling on Thursday last effectively ruled that not only did Kakuta’s pre-contract agreement stand, but that it was an enforceable contract with his club Lens. By offering Kakuta a wage Chelsea had thereby induced the player to break that enforceable contract.
One proposed solution – sponsored by both UEFA’s Michael Platini and FIFA’s Sepp Blatter – is a blanket international ban on player transfers under the age of 18. It’s a proposal seemingly endorsed by players’ groups too. Gordon Taylor, the Professional Footballers Association chair and FiFPro president, today called for such a measure.
“There’s been a general feeling that a ban on movement of players under the age of 18 would be better for the game,” Taylor told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Sportsweek programme.
“Football is about competition. You can’t have all the best youngsters at the biggest, richest clubs.”
“You need to encourage clubs, if they’re going to have youth development programmes, to be able to pick out the lads and have some time with them.
“If they do move on, which may be inevitable you need a system whereby proper, effective compensation is paid. At the end of the day you can’t stop people moving but it’s about fair compensation.
“I don’t think this situation with Chelsea would have reached the stage it has now if compensation had been agreed between the two clubs.”
While a move to ban the transfer of under-18s may appeal on a superficial level, thereby negating the predatory instincts of rich powerful clubs, it is not a situation that is legally enforceable in any other industry. In Kakuta’s case the contract aspirant he signed at 14 would turn into a full three-year employment contract at 17. That’s a total legally committed time of six years for a player barely into his teens. In any other industry it would be deemed modern day child slavery.
A ban would, in theory, promote the continued development of the best youth talent. Why should clubs invest in training players, it is said, if they are allowed to leave without compensation?
But Taylor castigates the market for enabling the richest clubs to hoard youth talent, while the exact same processes are alive and well and enriching his members once a player is no longer deemed a ‘youth’. Under the current rules that dichotemy is not sustainable.
It is unsuprising that clubs such as Lens and Le Harve feel cheated by larger clubs which remove their better youth players without paying a transfer fee. But the problem with youth transfers highlighted by the Kakuta and Paul Pogba cases is surely a symptom of an industry that has become bloated at the very top level. Football as a community has allowed wages, transfer fees and the perpetual supply of money into the industry from the media inflate to truly unsustainable levels. At 18 Kakuta will earn close to £1 million per year without having kicked a ball for the Chelsea first team.
Firstly, football must become financially sustainable – spending only what it can truly afford. While the industry’s leading clubs are so heavily indebted it seems unlikely that UEFA or FIFA will act but act they should. Manchester United, despite the £700 million debt handed to the club by the Glazer family, are one of the few European elite clubs to rigidly stick to a rule that says wages (and bonuses) will not rise above 60% of revenues. It’s a sensible and enforceable cap that would simply require clubs to submit audited accounts prior to entering European competitions.
Only then will the game’s governing bodies have the moral authority to strip the industry of out-dated ‘tapping up’ and youth contract rules that are ignored by the leading clubs, overridden by market forces and unenforceable in European law.
It is a fact that large clubs will always attract the best talent, seeking the biggest wages. Why shouldn’t clubs speak to whomever they want, if the player is keen to have a conversation? This is after all the employment market that the majority of fans live in.
But an enforceable system of compensation based on both current player status and future success would meet the needs of ‘smaller’ clubs such as Lens when it comes to transfers, encouraging them to invest in youth. It would not enslave players who want to move on and – perhaps most importantly – it would continue to redistribute wealth from the top.
It’s obvious but then football it seems is yet to grow up.