That the football community in Britain has responded with such surprise the two transfer window ban that FIFA have slapped upon Chelsea is, in itself, quite telling. It has long been the suspicion of many that the biggest clubs have been getting away with this sort of thing for years, but it is difficult to say whether this particular ruling has drawn so much attention because of its apparent harshness (unless Chelsea win an appeal, they will be unable to sign any new players from other clubs until January 2012, while Gael Kakuta himself has been banned from playing for four months) or because we are so used to big clubs acting in the way that Chelsea have that we have simply become resigned to the inevitability of it all.
It is important to distinguish, first of all, what Chelsea did wrong here that was different to the usual “tapping up” of players by clubs. The best way to do this is probably to compare and contrast the Gael Kakuta case with what looks on the surface like a similar case, that of Federico Macheda, who left Lazio for Manchester United at the age of sixteen. The fundamental difference between these two cases is the employment law in the countries concerned. In Italy, it is illegal for a player to be signed under contract until the age of eighteen whereas in France it is not. RC Lens had a contract with Kakuta, so the player couldn’t simply walk away, no matter how much more money Chelsea were offering, and this is the fundamental difference between the Kakuta case and others which have been held up in the media.
Real Madrid may have tapped Cristiano Ronaldo up and Manchester City may have tapped Joleon Lescott up, but neither of those (in their own right undeniably grubby) transfers saw the player and the circling club simply act as if no contract with the club that the player had been registered to existed. Looking back over the history of the case, the most reasonable assumption that can be arrived at is that either Kakuta told them that he had no contract with Lens and Chelsea simply believed him, or that Chelsea assumed that they could simply poach the player from Lens and that, resigned to losing the player, Lens would accept any compensation package put forward with the view that any return on his departure would be better than nothing.
As long ago as April 2007, just one month after Chelsea’s interest in the player started to become common knowledge, Lens’ director Francis Collado was making the club’s stance as public as he could, putting the following message on their website: “The risk is six months’ suspension for the player and a year’s ban on recruitment for the club. These are the Fifa rules. There is no reason that they do not apply to Chelsea”. Kakuta, however, turned sixteen a month later and signed for Chelsea instead. Chelsea did subsequently offer a compensation package to Lens which the club described as “insulting”. Lens then reported Chelsea to FIFA for what seems to be a fairly clear cut breach of the rules.
Chelsea’s best hope of appealing the sanctions brought against them is likely to be a claim that the contract that Lens had with Kakuta was legally unenforceable, but it seems unlikely that this won’t have been taken into account by FIFA’s Dispute Resolution Chamber. The club is certain to appeal to the Council of Arbitration for Sport but FIFA have applied their own rules completely fairly, according the the letter of the law. The club’s best chance of getting the sanctions commuted may be to refer back to the case of Phillipe Mexes. In 2005, AS Roma faced a similar sanction to Chelsea when they were similarly found guilty of a similar offence involving the French defender and his previous club, Auxerre. The CAS commuted the club’s ban in the transfer window from two transfer windows to one. Whether this will work or not, however, is open to question.
What we have seen over the last few days touches upon possibly the seediest side of football’s underbelly, and it has been exposed in the press in a way that doesn’t happen nearly enough. The trade of young players is a grubby business, and it is something that the media largely ignores and the authorities don’t have the required teeth to be able to deal with, except in the most clear cut of cases. This, it is widely believed, is the thin end of the wedge. The steady flow of young players into and across Europe, for example, still seems to be something that too few people within football are willing to spend too much time investigating.
Chelsea’s reaction to being caught with their fingers in the cookie jar was to claim that that the sanction brought against them was “without precedent to this level and totally disproportionate to the alleged offence”, which gives some indication on where they stand on the moral side of the issue. This, of course, is no surprise, and it is also no surprise that they are not the only club to be feeling the heat over their transfer policy towards young players. Manchester United were not censured over the case of Federico Macheda, but they may well be over Paul Pogba, who seems to have arrived at Old Trafford from French club Le Havre in similar circumstances to those by which Gael Kakuta ended up at Stamford Bridge.
When Le Havre’s managing Alain Belsouer commented, “We spend five million Euros on our academy every year out of a turnover of twelve million Euros. It is a huge investment. We do that to give a chance to our players to develop for our first team, not to be an academy for others. What is the point of investing in an academy if the players leave at 16?”, he touched on a fundamental truth of the modern game. If clubs the size of Chelsea, Manchester United (and others) aren’t going to risk money on their own youth academies and are going to cherry pick the best young players from smaller clubs in Europe that do take that chance, the absolute minimum that they should do is compensate those clubs handsomely. The big clubs aren’t accustomed to losing these days but, this time at least, FIFA have scored a small victory over them.