Chelsea signed French striker Gael Kakuta. Manchester United signed French midfielder Paul Pogba. A few years further back, Arsenal signed Spanish midfielder Cesc Fàbregas from the Barcelona system. And then, yesterday, Manchester City signed two 14-year-olds from Leeds United in an act Leeds chairman Ken Bates called “baby farming.” Manchester City executive chairman Garry Cook said, “Everything to do with this is under the microscope, call it child trafficking, baby farming, whatever you like, it has opened up a Pandora’s Box, with everyone looking into that box, and clubs like ours are being unfairly pinpointed for all sorts of reasons.” And that’s exactly what it looks like: a non-denial denial. So what, if anything, should be done to prevent big clubs from signing talented youngsters from smaller clubs?
Of course, most of the big clubs have no come out in support of a ban on under-age signing but that smacks of covering their own asses. It’s now politically unacceptable to sign players who are under 18.
Arsène Wenger is one of the few to suggest that “baby farming” is an acceptable practice. “Look at the alternative. If you ban players from moving before the age of 18, you know what will happen? The player will be sold anyway,” he said. “To whom? To agents. At what age? At 13, 14. Where will they go? Not to top-level clubs with top-level education.” You know what? That makes sense to a certain degree, if only because it was Wenger who said it and he strikes me as believable. But it only makes sense where there isn’t enough regulation.
I am thinking of South America, where third-parties are allowed to own economic rights, as a case on point. There, and in other places, FIFA needs to step in and police the domestic leagues. Oversight is necessary. FIFA needs to start earning the billions of dollars it takes in by ensuring that all those youngsters around the world who are trying to be professionals have some protection from unscrupulous agents.
The answer to this vexing problem lies, of course, at the intersection of competition and economics. At what point does competition trump economics? Or vice versa? When it comes to young players, the goal is to provide two things: soccer education and proper academic education. Perhaps the answer, in poorer nations, is FIFA-sponsored national academies, akin to the current projects in South Africa.
This is a prime opportunity for FIFA to step forward and be a leader. It should not be passed up.