The transfer bans against Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid announced last week show both the strengths and the weaknesses of Fifa’s regulations.
The regulations have teeth, and they can be enforced, but the teeth are less sharp than they might be. And the football authorities are still struggling to track down and deal with the real abuses: above all, the trafficking of underage African players.
On the plus side, there is the Transfer Matching System, the database controlling international moves.
The TMS took three years to set up and nothing much seemed to change when it became mandatory in 2010. That Sepp Blatter launched a system designed to achieve integrity and transparency and deal with money laundering and may have led to some cynicism.
However, the TMS is separate from the Fifa bureaucracy. It is a Fifa subsidiary, but is run as an independent business and it is staffed by professional investigators. Head of compliance, the Canadian lawyer Kimberley Morris, is tough customer, whose CV includes taking on the News of the World in the phone-hacking scandal.
The first headline case, against Barcelona, stuck despite the club’s appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. These latest bans are also likely to be fireproof, although they are more complex and include breaches of the regulations going back as far as 2005, two years before Fifa agreed to establish the TMS.
The weaknesses of the system are limited resources and that clubs have a lot of warning about impending bans. In these latest cases it was public knowledge more than eight months ago that a ban was on the way, giving the two clubs two transfer windows advance notice.
As in the Barcelona case, the appeal process will delay the ban by at least one more transfer window — and the clubs can also sign players and leave them at their current club until the end of the ban, as Barcelona did with Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal. On-loan players can also come back, provided the loan terms allow it.
Thus in practice, these punishments are less draconian than they seem — although not for the players whose transfers have now been deemed to be against the rules.
Bans also complicate the planning process, creating a ‘gap year’ in the youth recruitment programme. And of course if a key player is injured, you can’t buy a replacement.
Spanish anger at the decision partly reflects frustration that other countries are covered by different rules, although only for EU players.
The national regulations in Spain prohibit professional contracts for players under the age of 18. But English clubs can recruit 16-year-olds on scholarship agreements and sign them on professional contracts once they turn 17.
Thus Premier League clubs such as Manchester United and Chelsea are busily targeting top youngsters, for example the Netherlands Under 16 captain Juan Familia-Castillo, while La Liga clubs are unable to do so.
Hence, the gnashing of teeth you can hear in the claims from the Bernabeu about English clubs being next in line for punishment.
“I have relations with British clubs and I know for a fact that in many of these cases, the disciplinary investigations already started a while ago,” said Real Madrid director general José Angel Sanchez on Saturday.
“More cases will follow, one after the other.”
Fifa won’t be drawn on any ongoing investigations, but it is no great secret that leading English clubs have been under scrutiny.
Having already had brushes with Fifa in the past, they are very unlikely to be in breach of the rules now, but the TMS remit does seem to extend a long way back.
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