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FIFA's Child Trafficking Problem

The rampant, semi-secret trafficking of young players is a big problem in big-time soccer. Not that you'd be able to tell from FIFA's non-response to it.
Photo via WikiMedia Commons

Soccer has a child trafficking problem. There are unlicensed youth academies in West Africa, which effectively sell nine-year-olds to European and Arab middlemen, who then try to pass the kids on to European clubs. There are third-party ownership deals in South America, through which shady businessmen buy the rights to teenagers and control where they play for their entire careers. Europe's giants are pulling in minors from all over the globe, enrolling them in their youth academies and feeder clubs. This talent acquisition is brutal, inhumane, and largely unchecked.


FIFA, forever the checked-out dad waiting until his kid's hand is medium-rare on the stove before getting off the couch to do something about it, has taken only timid steps in the direction of protecting young soccer players. In October of 2009, it instituted a law that stipulates every international transfer of a player under the age of 18 has to pass muster at the subcommittee of FIFA's Players' Status Committee. That subcommittee is the arbiter of whether transfers are in violation of Article 19, which is the policy that's supposed to keep minors from being shipped far from home, to foreign clubs that may not look after them properly.

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The gist of Article 19 is that no under-18 player can be transferred internationally unless: 1) the player's family is moving to the same country as his new club for non-soccer-related reasons; 2) the player is moving from one European Union nation to another and is no younger than 16; or 3) the player lives just across the border from his new club (100 kilometers or less). Perhaps you can see the glaring the gaps in this law. The family of a Brazilian 14-year-old can decide to move to Barcelona for reasons that are not altogether clear but definitely have nothing to do with soccer, at which point it becomes legal for the kid to enroll at La Masia.

There are other ways around Article 19. Borussia Dortmund, for instance, signed American forward Christian Pulisic when he turned 16 in September of 2014; they could do this because Pulisic was able to obtain a Croatian passport due to his grandfather being born in Croatia. The transaction went through as if Pulisic had grown up in Zagreb rather than Hershey, Pennsylvania. You can usually spot a few under-18 Turks on top German clubs' youth squads, despite Turkey not belonging to the EU, because Germany is home to millions of ethnic Turks and Turkish foreign nationals. It's not uncommon for a 16-year-old phenom from Istanbul to suddenly discover he has a distant relative in Munich, or for his father to chase a dubiously legitimate job in Stuttgart.


In Spain, clubs break the rules with all the finesse of a demolitions expert exploding the door of a bank vault. Last year, when Barcelona were under investigation by FIFA, it became apparent that they had under-18 players from outside Europe on their youth teams who had moved to the Catalan capital without their parents and without Barcelona so much as notifying the Spanish soccer federation of their presence. Barça instead registered the youngsters with the Catalan federation, and that was the end of it, until some anonymous tipsters notified FIFA's watchdogs. The Players' Status subcommittee didn't get so much as a whiff of the illegal transfers at the time they occurred.

Now, it appears Real Madrid have done something similar. Details are a bit fuzzy—this is a FIFA investigation, so expect them to remain fuzzy—but it seems Madrid have been unofficially signing, then stashing foreign minors as young as 12 years old at tiny feeder clubs with the intention of bringing them into one of Madrid's many youth or senior squads once they develop further. (Of course, if a kid's development stalls, he's on his own.) Basically, Madrid are attempting to pre-sign underage foreign talent by hiding them at clubs with which they have a relationship. This tactic also might grant them (barely) plausible deniability. What? It wasn't we who illegally signed these players. It was Racing Obscura!

Madrid and Barça aren't alone. Atlético Madrid, Rayo Vallecano, and Valencia might also be dirty. These Spanish clubs are pulling this shit because it's eminently pullable. FIFA does a terrible job keeping tabs on player movement, despite having systems in place that are designed to do exactly that. A 12-year-old moves from Bogotá to a suburb of Madrid and no one notices besides the heist's participants. Whistles are blown well after the fact, if at all, and not because of FIFA's crack policing teams, but because rivals are turning each other in to the authorities. (It would surprise no one if this Real Madrid probe was set in motion by a little birdie at the Nou Camp.)

We never learn the full extent of FIFA's incompetency in these matters because they labor to hide it. Even after FIFA slapped Barça with a year-long transfer ban, they didn't explain in much detail what Barcelona did wrong. Quoth the press release: "The [Spanish soccer federation] and Barcelona were found to have violated several provisions concerning the international transfer and first registration of non-Spanish minors within the club." Names were not named. Specific transgressions were not disclosed. There was scuttlebutt in the Spanish press following the ruling about how and when Barcelona skirted the law, and the odds are some of the rumors were true, but we don't know which ones. All we're sure of is that the Catalans signed some players they shouldn't have, and that their wrongdoing was severe enough to warrant heavy sanction.

FIFA doesn't want to be in the business of punishing the most popular and powerful clubs in the world. Their message to Barça, loud and clear, was not an order to cease and desist so much as one to, in the future, make even the most half-assed attempt at following the rules. The sportocrats in Zurich were forced to bring the shithammer down because Barcelona's violations were so egregious as to be unignorable. One wonders if, at the end of this Real Madrid scandal, the club will be found to have been technically, kinda-sorta on the up-and-up enough to avoid severe penalties. The public perception is that FIFA will try its hardest to make this so.

"FIFA takes the protection of minors in football very seriously," according to the press release relating to the Barcelona punishment. Were that the case, Article 19 wouldn't have massive loopholes built into it, and the world soccer authority would get moving on some legislation to rid Africa of those wretched, predatory youth academies. (To be fair, FIFA did recently pass a ban on third-party ownership, but let's see the precise shape the rule takes and how it's enforced before we laud them for it.)

If the protection of minors is indeed a top priority for FIFA, then its bureaucracy needs to be dissolved and utterly rebuilt, because it can't work towards its goals with any sort of speed or efficacy. More likely, FIFA cares only about appearing to care about the well-being of kids being exploited by a system that allows for ample exploitation. It's a system in which FIFA, in all its usual ways, is complicit.