Chelsea’s transfer ban: hypocrisy on tap

For all the claims of bribery and ‘trafficking’, footballers should be free to choose their future employers like anyone else.

Duleep Allirajah

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Nobody likes Chelsea, do they?

There’s a long list of reasons for signing up to the ABC (Anyone But Chelsea) Club. Chelsea FC tick all the must-hate boxes. Here are the top ten most popular reasons for hating them.

  1. They’ve bought their success
  2. Their squad is full of foreigners
  3. They’re owned by a filthy rich Russian oil tycoon
  4. They’re nouveau riche upstarts who’ve ‘got no history’
  5. John Terry weeps like a baby
  6. They wax their chests
  7. They tap up other clubs’ players
  8. Their new supporters are glory hunting plastic fans
  9. Their old supporters were racist thugs
  10. Did I mention they’ve bought their success?

And now they’ve been handed a transfer ban for poaching Gaël Kakuta from French club Lens. The Fifa ruling means that Chelsea can’t sign any players until January 2011. Ha ha ha, serves them right, I hear you say. Surely no decent, right-minded person would defend the actions of these sleazy child-traffickers? Well, er, actually, I’m with Chelsea on this one.

What exactly was Chelsea’s crime? Fifa found that Chelsea had ‘induced’ French Kakuta to break his contract with Lens. There are two elements to the offence: firstly that Chelsea had illegally approached – or ‘tapped up’ – the player when he was 16 and bound by a pre-contract agreement to Lens and, secondly, that they had effectively bribed Kakuta’s family to breach the contract. Chelsea deny any wrongdoing and insist they will ‘mount the strongest appeal possible’.

Tapping up is football’s worst kept secret. ‘It has been going on since the beginning of time’, said BBC pundit Alan Hansen. ‘Everybody knows it is going on.’ Occasionally, someone gets their wrists slapped. In 2005, both Chelsea and Ashley Cole were found guilty of breaching the rules that prohibit tapping up. But still the practice continues relatively unabated. What is the rationale for the rules preventing unauthorised approaches between clubs and players? The rules, it is argued, are there to prevent footballing anarchy. They prevent richer clubs poaching players willy-nilly from everyone else.

That’s all very laudable, but there’s a fundamental flaw in the argument. If tapping up is as rife as everyone claims, then what use are the rules outlawing it? And why hasn’t football descended into anarchy already? The reality is, as Real Madrid have demonstrated this summer, if a wealthy club wants a player they’ll find a way to unsettle him within the rules or without. Similarly if a player wants away, it’s practically impossible for a club to keep him. This doesn’t lead to chaos because, even if we did away with transfer windows, it doesn’t make footballing sense for clubs to constantly buy and sell players. The most successful teams, like Manchester United, also tend to have the most stable and settled squads.

The tapping up rules are not only unworkable, they are anachronistic and unfair. Tapping up isn’t prohibited in any other field of employment. Employers can headhunt prospective staff. Workers can talk to prospective employers without having to obtain permission from their current boss. So why shouldn’t footballers enjoy the same freedoms as the rest of us? Footballers were once bonded to their clubs like indentured serfs. One by one those feudal restrictions have been removed with the exception of the tapping up rules. Chelsea might have tapped up Gaël Kakuta, but those rules shouldn’t exist in the first place.

The Kakuta affair isn’t, however, your bog-standard case of tapping up. Fifa have made an example of Chelsea because they want to stop rich clubs poaching youngsters from the weaker leagues. Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter have described this practice, rather more emotively, as ‘child trafficking’ and ‘child slavery’. Blatter wants a ban on transfers involving players under the age of 18. ‘The case we have just decided on is one with a player going from France to England. But most of the cases we have on our desk are from Africa to Europe or South America to Europe’, said Blatter. ‘They are taken at 14 or 15 years old with clubs saying that their parents are going too. But they get put into another family, and what happens to them? One out of say 20 has a chance to go on in their career. The others are left, and they need to be protected.’

No doubt there are some sharp practices in the scramble to unearth soccer’s rough diamonds. But can this really be equated with child trafficking? Waving wads of cash at young footballers is a far cry from forced labour or child prostitution. Take the case of Manchester United’s 17-year-old Italian wonderkid Federico Macheda who was signed from Lazio at the age of 16. Claudio Lotito, the Lazio president, was furious at United’s conduct. ‘It’s unthinkable that a lad of 15 can be bought as if it was a cattle market’, Lotito said. ‘They took him using wrong methods without any ethical codes. They tempt parents with big money and offers of work.’

United have been accused of helping Macheda’s family relocate to England. Whether or not that is true, and Sir Alex Ferguson denies that payments are ever made to parents, it’s not exactly my idea of slavery. Lotito can rant and rave about United all he likes, but the problem, as I see it, is twofold. Firstly, Lazio aren’t as wealthy as Manchester United. And secondly, United were simply taking advantage of the Italian football federation’s regulations that prevent clubs from signing players on professional contracts until they are 18. If the Italian football authorities treated 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, rather than children, then Macheda might still be a Lazio player.

The News of the World’s Andy Dunn thinks that, rather than poach foreign talent, our clubs should be doing more to develop British players. ‘The traffic in child footballers – most of it one-way towards a country that was once proud of its tradition of rearing young, homegrown footballers – is obscene’, thundered Dunn (1).

Now I’m in favour of some decent homegrown as much as the next man. My club, Crystal Palace, has a fine academy, but the bigger clubs invariably poach our best young players. Last season, we lost John Bostock to Spurs at the age of 16. So obviously I sympathise with clubs like Lens who can’t compete against the financial clout of Chelsea. Of course, there should be fairer compensation for smaller clubs. The fees awarded by tribunals are a joke.

But I can’t see how Fifa’s plans to ban all under-18 transfers would rectify this. Nor can I see how such a ban would enable the poorer leagues to develop. The domestic leagues in Africa and South America countries are weak because those countries are poorer. What those nations need is economic development not some absurd form of sporting protectionism that denies talented young footballers the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families abroad.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on: spiked-issue Sport.

(1) Smug clubs should pay price for child trafficking, News of the World, 6 September 2009

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