Sunday, 6 September 2009

Why one teenager from Lens matters so much

This piece started off as a comment on Rob Marrs' excellent Left Back In The Changing Room blog, before growing something of a life of its own. It basically boils down to: why trading in child football players is wrong, and why the football transfer system is basically a good thing.

Commenting on the transfer ban Chelsea have been hit with for illegally signing French prodigy Gael Kakuta, Rob usefully clears up the distinction between bog-standard tapping-up (essentially testing the water for a possible transfer and encouraging the player to ask for one) and what Chelsea appear to have done in the Kakuta case - encouraging a minor to break an existing contract. He then goes on to argue that the entire transfer system is "massively unjust and possibly illegal" in that it restricts players' choice of employer in a way that isn't found in any other walk of life.

Firstly, Rob is absolutely right in saying that watching clubs trading in minors is unedifying. Few people want to see multinational corporations offering kids, usually from poor backgrounds, eye-watering financial inducements to move to a country where they are unhappy, don't speak the language and fall behind in their studies. All of these seem to have happened in the case of Kakuta, who admits he regularly went back to Lens on the Eurostar to watch his old team-mates.

The reason that Chelsea are the first high-profile case of a club being punished for this is not a sign that governing bodies such as Fifa and UEFA consider this trade above-board, just that the rules are pretty unclear but Chelsea have broken one of the few clear ones. Clubs aren't supposed to sign minors, but there are all sorts of loopholes. Manchester United allegedly arranged a job in Manchester for the father of young Italian Federico Macheda so his family could claim they had moved for 'non-footballing reasons', which is perfectly legal.

A ban on transfers for all under-18s, as Fifa and players' representatives are now seeking, would prevent kids being involved in deals they can barely understand, as well as clear up the rules. Clubs would have fewer opportunities to give dodgy deals a fig-leaf of legitimacy, and those breaking the rules could be hit with proportional punishments. Rob points out that Chelsea have been fined over 20 times more than the Ivory Coast FA were for the crushing to death of 19 fans in a stampede, and argues that this shows Fifa have skewed priorities. The problem here is the same as for any fine - ability to pay. £682,000 is a drop in the ocean for Roman Abramovich, who have only really been affected by the signings ban, but the same sum would cripple a small national FA. Since an FA is responsible for everything from discipline to schools football, this would be in nobody's interests.

Where I really do differ from Rob, though, is the question of whether the transfer system as a whole is as unjust as he thinks. The key point is that you just can't compare football to plumbing - sport is a unique business because it makes its money solely from competition. There could never be a sporting monopoly because there would be nothing to see. Sport therefore requires uniquely sensitive regulation to ensure competition remains healthy, and preventing players from moving clubs at will while under contract is part of that.

Allowing completely free movement of players doesn't really compare to the Bosman ruling, which just abolished cartoonishly unjust restrictions that prevented a player from leaving a club even after his contract had expired. Fixed term contracts allow clubs, financially unstable as so many of them are, at least a chance to plan for the future. The first result of any 'new Bosman ruling' would be a rash of bankruptcies which could make Leeds' fall from grace look small.

The money in the game - the result of rich old men wanting to buy adoration (see Blackburn's Premiership title, Silvio Berlusconi at Milan, even poor old Mike Ashley) - would simply move into wages, propelling footballers into circles of wealth even further beyond fans' imagination. If Real Madrid had been able to nab Cristiano Ronaldo for nothing, he might easily have become the world's first £500,000 a week player, outstripping even brand Beckham.

The most disturbing consequence of allowing players to break contracts prematurely, however, would be the complete and immediate evisceration of domestic football in large parts of the world. Earlier this year, a small drop in the number of transfers resulted in a bankruptcy crisis for Argentinian football clubs so severe that many received state aid to prevent the national league collapsing. The fact is that all South American football is heavily dependent on European clubs buying up young talent at high prices, and an end to this would destroy some of the world's oldest and most respected teams. Closer to home, Serbian and Croatian football works in a similar way (think of the money Man U paid for two Partizan Belgrade starlets in January), while Portuguese clubs are a massive import warehouse for Brazilian talent. That's an awful lot of wrecked clubs and disenfranchised fans without even looking at the English lower leagues. The reality is that without transfer fees, there's nothing to stop European Champions League clubs simply setting up harvesting operations around the world and bypassing local fans entirely except to sell them merchandise.

Of course the transfer system isn't perfect and never will be, although a ban on transfers for under-18s would make it better. All sport, especially the highly commercial game of football, occupies a unique niche and needs special regulation to reflect that. The irony is that giving players more freedom to move clubs could easily end up restricting fans' choice drastically.

Finally, here a few things I found while scratching around the internet researching this post:

- an excellent article on Sampdoria's only Serie A title

- a pretty good compilation of goal celebrations, but what makes it is Aylesbury United's appearance about three minutes in. Enjoy.

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