Six key lessons for clubs on the protection of minors from the FC Barcelona & Real Madrid appeals

Published 01 August 2017 By: John Shea

Young footballers training on field

It is been several months since the high profile cases involving FC Barcelona and Real Madrid and FIFA’s protection of minors regulations were decided by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). However, the recent publication of the CAS awards has provided much welcomed detail regarding the nature of the breaches and clubs can learn key lessons from both cases in order to avoid similar sanctions in the future.

By way of background, FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee sanctioned FC Barcelona and Real Madrid in 2014[1] and 2016[2] respectively for breaches relating to the international transfer and first registration of minor players as well as other relevant provisions. Both clubs were sanctioned with heavy fines and transfer bans for two transfer windows. Following unsuccessful appeals to FIFA’s Appeal Committee, both clubs appealed to CAS. FC Barcelona’s appeal was dismissed on 30 December 2014[3] and Real Madrid’s appeal was partially upheld on 20 December 2016[4].

Both awards can be accessed here[5] (FC Barcelona) and here[6] (Real Madrid).   

This article reviews the decisions and reflects on six key lessons for clubs agents and players, namely:

  • The importance of respecting the regulations;
  • The risks of “organised football”;
  • Do not register or integrate the player at the club before obtaining FIFA subcommittee approval;
  • Ensure that players are registered with the national association; and
  • Registration is not sufficient to comply with reporting requirements under Article 19bis RSTP.

 

The Regulations

Articles 19.1 and 19.3 of RSTP prohibits the international transfer and first registration of foreign players under the age of 18 except in limited circumstances specified in Article 19.2(2).

Article 19.4 RSTP, together with Annexes 2 and 3, confirm that applications for registration of players under 18 must be done through the Transfer Matching System (“TMS”) and require the approval of the FIFA Subcommittee.

 

Lesson 1 - The Prohibition under Article 19.1 and 19.3 Applies to Players of All Ages

In Real Madrid’s case, four of the alleged breaches of Article 19.1 and 19.3 involved players under the age of 12. Real Madrid accepted that Articles 19.1 and 19.3 RSTP prohibit the international transfer of minors and first registration of non-national minors. However, they believed that at the relevant time, the prohibition under Articles 19.1 and 19.3 did not apply to minors under the age of 12 years old. This was because the wording of Article 9.4 RSTP confirms that

An ITC is not required for a player under the age of 12 years” and the FIFA Commentary on that provision says that “any transfers before the age of 12 have no effect in relation to the provisions of the Regulations, since the training compensation and solidarity mechanism are calculated only as from this age.

As a result, Real Madrid believed that they did not have to request approval from the Spanish Football Federation (“the RFEF”) or the FIFA Subcommittee in relation to the four players who were under 12.[7] FC Barcelona raised exactly the same argument in their appeal in relation to three players under 12.[8]

FIFA disagreed and claimed that Articles 9.4 and 19 RSTP are different obligations meaning that the restriction in Article 9.4 RSTP in no way “affects the general prohibition of Article 19 RSTP.[9]  Therefore, Article 19 RSTP also applies to players Under-12 and that in order to register such a player, the national association had to confirm compliance with Article 19 RSTP. Real Madrid had to provide the national association with all the necessary information/documentation so that it could verify whether the exception contained in Article 19.2 RSTP applied, but it failed to do so.

The CAS panel in FC Barcelona’s appeal rejected the club’s argument and concluded that

the scope of Art. 19 RSTP is different from that of Art. 9 …Thus, players under 12 can be transferred only if the club requesting registration has proven that it complies with the requirements embedded in Art. 19.2 RSTP.[10]

Real Madrid were able to adduce and rely upon additional evidence on this issue in their appeal. Firstly, based on its interpretation of the RSTP and the RFEF’s practice, Real Madrid explained how they always registered players under 12 with the Madrid Football Federation (“the FFM”) without requesting authorisation from the RFEF or the FIFA Subcommittee. However, following the sanctions imposed on Barcelona in 2014, Real Madrid contacted the RFEF to clarify that it was interpreting and applying the rules concerning the registration of players under 12 correctly. The RFEF confirmed that

Children under 12 years of age do not need the approval of the FIFA Subcommittee for minors, which means that it is the autonomous federations themselves that register those players without further action.[11]

Therefore, the RFEF did not apply the regime of Article 19.2 RSTP to players under 12. Secondly, they highlighted how FIFA had taken inconsistent action on this issue in the past. Following the FC Barcelona case, the RFEF sought reassurances from FIFA that they were interpreting the rules correctly and FIFA confirmed in a letter dated 17 April 2014 that:

The Subcommittee of the Players’ Status in its meeting of October 2009, clarified that there was no need to seek approval under Article 19.4 of the FIFA RSTP before requesting an ITC and/or effecting a first registration of a player aged below 12 years (…). However, any association intending to register minors aged below 12 years for one of its affiliate clubs carries a greater responsibility of ensuring that the well-being of the children in question is not under threat and that they are treated in line with the spirit and principles of the relevant regulations on the protection of minors. It is needless to say that the associations must also take part in avoiding that the relevant objectives [of said regulations] are undermined.[12]

Also, FIFA themselves did not always require national associations to apply Article 19 RSTP to players under 12. In the case of FC Girondins de Bordeaux c. FIFA,[13] the FIFA Subcommittee rejected the request of the international transfer of Valentin Vada to FC Girondins de Bordeaux who was 15 on the basis that it could not be established that his parents moved to France for reasons not linked to football. However, at the same time, FIFA knew, but did not have any issue with the registration at the same club, of the player’s younger brother who was then 5 years of age. FIFA confirmed in that case that

It should be clarified that only Valentin Vada is subject to Article 19 RSTP, as his older brother is of age and his younger brother is too young to have to acquire a license"[14].

It was for all these reasons that the Sole Arbitrator concluded that Real Madrid had not committed any breach of Articles 19.1 and 19.3 in relation to the players under 12 in contrast to the decision in the FC Barcelona appeal.[15]

Whilst Real Madrid were able to successfully rely upon these inconsistencies in their appeal, there is now no doubt, following the issue of FIFA Circular 1468 on 23 January 2015, that clubs must provide national associations with all the necessary information/documentation to enable them to verify compliance with Article 19.2 RSTP for minors under 10 (previously 12):

we deem it important to point out and clarify that if a member association intends to register players under the age of 10 (currently 12), despite the fact that no ITC and no application to the sub-committee appointed by the Players’ Status Committee will be required, it is all the more responsibility of this association to verify and ensure that the requirements for the protection of minors established in art. 19 par. 2 of the regulations are met[16]

The prohibitions contained within Article 19.1 and 19.3, therefore, clearly apply to all players under the age of 18 and clubs looking to register players under 10 must provide evidence to the national association to prove that one of the limited exceptions apply.  

 

Lesson 2 - Respect the Regulations

FC Barcelona argued in their appeal that it fully complied with Article 19 by simply asking the Catalan Football Federation (“the FCF”) to register the players[17]. The CAS panel rejected this argument and were particularly scathing regarding FC Barcelona’s conduct:

FCB is under the direct and primary obligation to avoid transferring under-aged players, unless it can demonstrate that one of the statutory exceptions embedded in Art. 19.2 RSTP have been met…from the beginning FCB did not even try to request the transfers based on any one of the exceptions. FCB should have been aware of the simple fact that the FCF or the RFEF could not register the minors in any legitimate way under the RSTP. In other sectors of law, such behaviour is known as “wilful ignorance” or, more colloquially, “deliberate shutting of eyes”, and might lead to the imposition of legal responsibility to a specific way of conduct made under such circumstances.[18]

It is, therefore, clear that attempts by clubs to somehow circumvent the regulations will not be looked at favourably by CAS.

 

Lesson 3 - The Risk of “Organised Football

In the Real Madrid case, FIFA claimed that violations of Articles 19.3, 19.4 and Annexes 2 and 3 occurred in relation to two players on the basis that they took part in extended trials and played in organised football. According to FIFA, this constituted a first registration within the meaning of Article 19.3 RSTP without satisfying an exception under 19.2 RSTP or obtaining authorisation from the FIFA Subcommittee.[19]

Real Madrid were successful in arguing that no violations took place in relation to these players   because they only trained with the club and participated in non-organised football as part of a trial. The players took part in some tournaments but the Sole Arbitrator concluded that none of the tournaments were organised or authorised by the FFM, RFEF, UEFA or FIFA in accordance with the RSTP definition[20].  Organised football is defined in the RSTP as “association football organised under the auspices of FIFA, the confederations and the associations, or authorised by them.” The players were also never registered and the Sole Arbitrator disagreed with FIFA that an extended trial at a club could constitute a first registration within the meaning of Article 19.3 RSTP because there is no such rule confirming the possibility of a de facto registration and nor has this been consistently applied by FIFA bodies or CAS previously.[21]

The decision may have been different if the players in question were found to have participated in organised football so clubs should fully understand the definition of “organised football” and be cautious when fielding unregistered minors in any tournaments coming under the definition in order to avoid any possibility of FIFA alleging an Article 19.3 breach.

 

Lesson 4 - Do Not Register or Integrate the Player at the Club before Obtaining FIFA Subcommittee Approval

Article 19 RSTP, together with Annexes 2 and 3 RSTP, confirm that FIFA Subcommittee’s approval and the ITC must be obtained before an international transfer of a minor or a first registration of a non-national minor can take place. Article 19.4 RSTP requires that the FIFA Subcommittee’s approval be obtained prior to the request for the ITC and/or first registration and Article 9.1 RSTP confirms that an association may only register an international transfer once it receives the ITC.

In the case of two players, Real Madrid registered the players with the FFM and included them within the club before approval from the FIFA Subcommittee and the ITC’s were obtained. As a result, the club was alleged to have breached Articles 9.1, 19.1, 19.3 and 19.4 RSTP, together with Annexes 2 and 3 RSTP.

The club claimed that one of the players in question only had a licence placed “in deposit” with the FFM at their request pending the arrival of the ITC for the player. That license did not come into force and the Player did not participate in organised football, until after the FIFA Subcommittee approved his transfer under Article 19.2(b) and the RFEF obtained the ITC. The other player only had temporary and provisional authorisations from the FFM to play for the club for limited periods. In granting these authorisations, Real Madrid claimed that the FFM considered that the player clearly fell under exception where a foreign minor has resided at least 5 years in the country of first registration and that the only reason they could not complete his registration was because the player could not obtain his passport. Once the player obtained his passport, the club applied for approval from the FIFA Subcommittee, who granted it without any issues.[22]

The Sole Arbitrator rejected Real Madrid’s argument. There was no provision in the RSTP which allows a club to place a license “in deposit” or obtain a provisional authorisation from a regional association and notwithstanding the likelihood of the registrations being ultimately approved, the steps of the registration process laid out in Articles 19.4 and 9.1 RSTP cannot be skipped or circumvented with mechanisms not foreseen in the RSTP.[23]

Clubs should ensure that players are not registered (either formally or provisionally) or even integrated within the club until FIFA Subcommittee’s approval is received and the ITC is obtained otherwise it will likely face sanctions under Article 19.

 

Lesson 5 - Ensure That Players are Registered with the National Association

Both clubs were also alleged by FIFA to have violated Article 5.1 RSTP which confirms that players

must be registered at an association to play for a club as either a professional or an amateur in accordance with the provisions of article 2. Only registered players are eligible to participate in organised football…[24]

FC Barcelona and Real Madrid were found by FIFA to have breached Article 5.1 because the players in question were registered with the regional associations i.e. the FCF and FFM instead of the national association, the RFEF.

Both clubs denied breaches of Article 5.1 because due to the Spanish legal framework, they were unable to the register the players with the RFEF as they were only playing in regional competitions. A club in Spain who intends to register a minor player participating in regional competitions must do so at the relevant regional association only. According to both clubs, FIFA was aware of and consented to the Spanish sports structure by recognising and accepting the RFEF statutes which confirm that the Spanish regional associations represent the RFEF in their respective regions. The sports structure in Spain was helpfully explained in the Real Madrid award at Paragraph 36(d):

Spain is composed of 17 regions known as autonomous communities (“Comunidades Autónomas” in Spanish) each of which has competence in the field of sport and has its own regional sports associations, which govern their respective sport in a coordinated manner with the national association. In football, the FFM is one of these regional associations and it is integrated within the RFEF and represents it in the region of Madrid, the “Comunidad Autónoma de Madrid”. By law, as a club in Madrid, Real Madrid had to mandatorily affiliate to the FFM and to comply its regulations, including those on the licensing and registration of players. Under said regulations, the FFM is the only body competent to issue licenses and registrations for players participating in regional competitions only.

In FIFA’s view, registration with the local association is insufficient to satisfy Article 5.1 RSTP as that body is not a FIFA member and is not recognized by FIFA. The relevant association under the Article 5.1 is the national association i.e. the RFEF and not the FCF or FFM. FIFA does not recognise any association below the national association. Both clubs, therefore, violated Article 5.1 RSTP because they did not provide sufficient proof to establish that it registered the players with the RFEF.[25]

The CAS panel in the FC Barcelona case and the Sole Arbitrator in the Real Madrid case both agreed with FIFA that “association” in Article 5.1 refers to national associations that are members of FIFA, i.e. the RFEF and not the FCF or FFM as they are regional associations and not members of FIFA[26]. In order to determine whether both clubs had violated Article 5.1, it was necessary to clarify whether the players were registered with the RFEF.

In Real Madrid’s case, the players who were initially registered with the FFM were ultimately registered with the RFEF as the FFM promptly notified them of the registration. The Sole Arbitrator, therefore, found that Real Madrid did not breach Article 5.1[27]. However, not all Spanish regional associations notify or immediately notify all players to the RFEF of their registration and the FCF in FC Barcelona’s case did not immediately and reliably pass all information regarding the players to the RFEF. FC Barcelona were still held to be not liable for breaching Article 5.1 because the “idiosyncratic” nature of the Spanish system meant they could not register the players directly with the RFEF[28].

Whilst both clubs were held not to be liable for breaching Article 5.1, clubs should be aware of their obligation to register players participating in organised football with the national association. Registration with regional associations will not be sufficient even if the players are only taking part in regional competitions.

 

Lesson 6 - Registration Is Not Sufficient to Comply With Reporting Requirements under Article 19bis

FC Barcelona and Real Madrid were also alleged by FIFA to have breached their obligation under Article 19bis to report all minors who attended their academies to the RFEF.

According to Article 19bis RSTP

Clubs that operate an academy with legal, financial or de facto links to the club are obliged to report all minors who attend the academy to the association upon whose territory the academy operates.” An academy is defined in point 12 RSTP Definitions as “an organisation or an independent legal entity whose primary, long-term objective is to provide players with long-term training through the provision of the necessary training facilities and infrastructure. This shall primarily include, but not be limited to, football training centres, football camps, football schools, etc.

Both clubs claimed that they satisfied their obligation to report the attendance of minors by registering them with their respective regional associations, namely the FCF and FFM. FIFA obviously disagreed and maintained that the obligation to report under Article 19bis RSTP is an additional, separate and independent obligation to that of registering a player and so both clubs were in breach.

The CAS Panel and the Sole Arbitrator both agreed with FIFA and concluded that reporting under Article 19bis was a further and different obligation to registering a player in order to protect minors who train and/or play with an academy but are not registered[29]. The CAS panel in the FC Barcelona case summarised the position as follows:

The obligation imposed by Art. 19-bis RSTP on clubs to report minors attending an academy to the relevant association is a further, and different, obligation than the one concerning the registration of the players. In other words, it cannot be considered, as the Appellant submits, that by registering a player a club would automatically comply also with the obligation to “report” players who are attending its academy. This is so because of the rationale behind Art. 19-bis RSTP, which is based on the consideration that a distinction should be made between under-aged players who are registered with the club but do not attend an academy, and under-aged players not only registered with the club but also attending its academy and, most important, under-aged players who are not registered with the club but still train and play in the academy.[30]

Both clubs, therefore, violated Article 19bis.     

The decisions highlights the importance of clubs to comply with their obligation under Article 19bis to report all minors who attend their academies and it is clear that the mere act of registering the players with the relevant association is separate and not enough to satisfy this obligation.

 

Comment

Both cases have brought the protection of minor regulations into sharp focus for everyone connected with football and whilst some international transfers may be in the best interests of a young player’s sporting career, it is clear that FIFA will enforce the regulations strictly and consistently in order to safeguard the wellbeing of minor players as whole.

Given the significant sanctions that can be imposed, it is clear that clubs must strictly adhere to the regulations and seek advice if any uncertainty arises.

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Author

John Shea

John Shea

John is a senior associate in the Sports Business Group at Lewis Silkin specialising in contentious, regulatory and disciplinary issues for clubs, agencies, governing bodies and athletes

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