By Tony Attwood
As you may recall if you are a regular reader of Untold, we’ve taken a particular interest in the FC Barcelona case concerning child trafficking and we were one of very few places that kept on with the story. As we ran it the abuse poured in day by day (most of it of course we didn’t publish). We were told there was no case, that the Court of Arbitration in Sport would throw it all out, that we were rumour-mongering.
But then at the end of 2014 we found that the result of Barcelona’s behind-closed-doors appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against the charges of dealing in children between 2009 and 2013, had been rejected and it was finally confirmed that they would not be allowed to sign any players in 2015. Interestingly I don’t think any other outlets had covered that CAS session – but we had been following it for months, waiting to see what CAS would do. The media eventually caught up.
As we had said throughout, and as became clear from the CAS appeal, the truth always remained that Barcelona had put forward no defence at all, save the fact that their academy was world famous and could not possibly be seen as a centre of the illegal movement of children across national boundaries. It’s main line of defence other than that was that the case was “utter nonsense”. This was Barcelona, after all.
After CAS said in a statement, “The panel found in particular that FC Barcelona had breached the rules regarding the protection of minors and the registration of minors attending football academies,” Barcelona then changed tack and suggested that the errors were of an “administrative nature and to a large extent have been caused by the existing conflict between the Fifa regulations and Spanish legislation.”
But we always knew that this was not the end, because even as the Barcelona case was going through there was clear evidence that Fifa would be taking on Real Madrid, if not other clubs in Spain, and we got little whispers that there was a British club involved too – which was something that would explain why the media was so keen either to ignore the issue totally, or hush it up.
Fifa rules forbid the movement of children beyond national boundaries (other than within the EU) to train in another country unless a parent has an established proper job in advance in the other country. It is suggested in some quarters that Barcelona were providing jobs for parents – something specifically forbidden by Fifa, following pressure from UNICEF.
There was also much involvement from the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS) which established the International Safeguards for Children in Sport. Its reports estimates that there are maybe 15,000 trafficked child players in Europe from the age of 11 upwards.
These are boys who have been promised the earth but end up penniless, homeless, sleeping rough, talented, but not talented enough. As we now know the La Masia academy maintained its standard because it had a non-stop array of young players supplied by agents who loved FCB – because Barcelona never asked questions about players, parents, jobs, and all the other pesky bits and pieces of regulation aimed at protecting children.
Now when Untold ran the story, following the original case, the Fifa appeal and the CAS appeal, I wrote on Untold, “Barcelona may not be the only club that doesn’t mind trafficking in children – there may well be others, but so far the evidence is not there.”
Then we got emails from people saying “Arsenal do just the same”. No one ever provided a scrap of evidence however. That’s how it goes.
What we did find was that there are even what are called Schools of Football Excellence in Africa which claim they are set up by the clubs in Europe, to find young talent and bring it to the clubs. It is all a con and a sham but it seemed the Metropolitan Police in London did get involved in trying to liaise with countries in West Africa. But the FA didn’t want to know so gave no support. It was, they said, not their problem.
So it has been down to the little guys, the people like Untold. Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid were also eventually found guilty by Fifa but in January this year their cases were suspended as Fifa investigated their appeals. But there has also been another case lurking around, and that is the case of Manchester City and Kelechi Iheanacho.
Now in what follows I want to make it quite clear I am not at all sure whether Man City have found a loophole to get around the rules on under 18 year olds from outside the EU, or whether there is something more nasty going on. But even if they have done nothing worse than find a loophole, I still think it is bad news. Very bad news in fact, because if Fifa don’t act, everyone will be doing it.
Iheanacho was signed by Man City on a pre-contract when he was 17 years and 3 months, with professional terms to be signed when the player became 18. That is quite legitimate and ok. It recognised the work Man City had done with the player. And it recognised the EU law in the sense and so no money was to be paid to the player until he was 18, in accordance with Fifa article 19.
But then (it was reported) Porto moved in and offered to take the player, and break the Fifa rules on child trafficking – meaning they would pay various sums that Man C were going to pay on the boy’s 18 birthday, but they would pay up immediately.
And we are not talking peanuts here. The complete amount that Man City offered to pay on the birthday was over £1.5m, with the biggest share going to the player, but around one third of a million to the father, and slightly less to the Academy in Nigeria where the player had been developed as a footballer.
Next up came a story which is said by a number of sources to have been in Sun News in Nigeria. However I can’t find that story and the page often cited as an internet link leads to a scam site that invites readers to download software that will do nasty things to your computer. However “Goal” did report it, seemingly when the story was still on the internet.
This added to the many reports around to the effect that Iheanacho’s father and the Nigerian academy were given their money at once by Manchester City.
It is a model that has interested other unscrupulous clubs, and if Fifa take no action against Man C it will give the green light to the manoeuvre of paying the father rather than the player. The father then can, of course pass on the money to the player, and so totally by-pass all the laws that are designed to protect under 18 year olds.
But there is worse, because this story is now out, big time. Which means agents and parents of under age players outside the EU are now demanding pre-contract agreements for under age players, with money going to the father – exactly what the Fifa rule in Article 19 was out to stop.
What is also clear is that young players are being shunted around countries like Nigeria, being moved hundreds of miles from their homes, to train up as players to be offered through this new system. And then, if they are found not to be up to standard they are left, with no resources to get back to their home.
So, the player joined Man City and while still 17 played in pre-season matches, including one against AC Milan. Indeed although only holding the player on a pre-contract agreement it seems Man C refused to release the player to play for the Nigerian under 20s.
When he became 18, and so no longer subject to the anti-trafficking laws, Iheanacho became a Man City player.
Then in January this year the Real Madrid director general Jose Angel Sanchez said in an interview “I have relations with British clubs and I know for a fact that in many of these cases the disciplinary investigations have already started a while ago. I imagine that Fifa’s resources for these investigations are limited and Fifa cannot do everything at the same time but I have the impression that this is being done at European level and that more cases will follow, one after the other.”
We await further developments. And of course just because we called it right over Man C being fined and having the squad reduced for the Champions League while others refused to run the story, and over Barcelona being banned from transfers and losing its appeal, and over the failure of the EU legal challenge against FFP, and spotting in advance the change to Swiss law that then allowed the Americans to arrest Fifa executives, that doesn’t mean we are always going to get these cases right. But at least our record shows that despite the abuse we have got in each case, we really do try and do a bit of digging and do try and check our sources first of all.
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