FIFA ostensibly exists to police soccer on a global scale and stage the World Cup every four years, and it doesn’t do either of those things well. It’s a cartel of sportocrats funneling TV revenues and sponsorship money into their own pockets via bribes and deviously creative accounting, largely ignoring the day-to-day happenings of the sport it’s supposed to be looking after.
Unlicensed, child-trafficking youth academies crop up in West Africa, shady agents purchase the economic rights of talented teenagers from South America’s barrios, slave laborers die in droves building World Cup stadiums in Qatar, the head of the whole operation uses money that’s earmarked for the development of the game in impoverished nations to buy votes, and be-blazered executive committee members meet with ambassadors from a country that wants to host a World Cup (or undercover journalists posing as such), tenting their fingers and speaking in the universally understood tongue of the shakedown artist: “Well, it’s going to cost you.”
But even a hopelessly broken sports government that is engineered to make a handful of old men very rich while angering the entire rest of the world is right twice a decade, or something like that. FIFA got one correct when it hit Spanish superclub Barcelona with a year-long transfer ban for 2015.
That doesn’t mean the implementation has been clean. The Catalan giants took umbrage with the 2014 decision and promptly appealed it to Europe’s Court of Arbitration for Sport, a judicial body that would have handled Deflategate if the NFL were based in Munich instead of New York. That bought the club just enough time to spend $167 million in transfer fees, including $98 million for superstar striker Luis Suarez, before the CAS handed down a ruling upholding the ban.
The appeal, in essence, was Barcelona fronting like it was protesting its innocence, but more than anything, it was stalling, getting reinforcements into the fold for what was anticipated to be a perilously long year. For 2015, its squad would be set.
The reason for FIFA coming down hard on Barcelona is shockingly valid. Barca was in violation of Article 19 of FIFA’s rules regarding the transfer of players, a regulation which states that clubs can’t pluck minors from halfway across the globe and assimilate them into their youth academies. If a club like Barcelona has its eye on some 15-year-old Brazilian prodigy, it’s supposed to wait until the player turns 18. Or, alternatively, it can utilize a massive loophole in the law that stipulates if an under-18, non-European player’s family moves to a new country for “non-soccer reasons,” then he may join any club in that country. So, the next Ronaldinho can’t traverse the Atlantic by himself, but if his dad totally coincidentally gets a job in Catalonia, he can enroll at Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy without a hitch.
Barcelona didn’t even bother with this charade. Details on the players involved are scant—presumably to protect exploited high school-aged kids from public scrutiny—but we know that between 2009 and 2013, Barca imported at least five foreign youngsters from outside Europe, registered them with the Catalan Football Federation, and acted as if it hadn’t done anything wrong.
Of course, the Catalan Football Federation has no affiliation with FIFA, and thus the world soccer body had no idea teenagers had moved thousands of miles to play for Barca’s youth setup until an anonymous whistleblower tipped the organization. Only then did FIFA check the registration records and see that Barcelona had flagrantly violated Article 19.
As ever, even when FIFA gets something right, it sort of screws up. The Players’ Status Committee is supposed to catch clubs that do what Barcelona did in the act, not years after the fact. Anyway, at least the sanctions were adequately harsh. A full year with no new signings is tough to endure, even for one of Europe’s titans.
At the outset of this 2015-16 season, Barcelona was on (relatively) shaky ground. Yes, the club had won everything in 2014–15—La Liga, the Copa del Rey, and the Champions League—but this wasn’t reminiscent of the dominant Pep Guardiola era. Barca beat its competition; it didn’t float above it. By the time Barcelona was defeated in August’s Spanish Supercup by Athletic Bilbao, it seemed pretty clear the squad was going to have a hell of a time getting to January, especially considering the league schedule had it playing all of Spain’s other best teams — Atletico, Real Madrid, Sevilla, and Valencia — away from home before the new year.
Barca's squad, which was still about as talented as any in the world, was rather thin.
The club would have to rely on untested youth players for depth, and was a couple of injuries away from what big clubs call “disaster,” which is to say slipping some five to eight points behind in the league and struggling through their Champions League group.
Unfortunately for the Catalans, that injury bug has struck. Rafinha is likely done for the season after a brutal Radja Nainggolan tackle sundered his ACL. Andres Iniesta hurt his hamstring against Leverkusen on Tuesday and will be sidelined for about six weeks. Leo Messi will be out for at least a month and a half with a mild tear in his left knee. Suddenly, Barcelona’s hopes of keeping pace domestically and in Europe are resting on 20-year-olds: Munir El Haddadi, Sandro Ramirez, and Sergi Roberto.
The club and its supporters talk a big game about La Masia being the best youth academy in the world, which is the sort of boast you can make when you produce the greatest generation of midfielders the sport has ever seen, but this next crop isn’t quite so impressive. Barcelona doesn't need El Haddadi, Ramirez, and Roberto to be transcendent for three months, but the trio will have to be pretty good, or else Messi and Iniesta will have a horse pasture’s worth of ground to make up upon their returns, and those inevitable 2016 signings will arrive too late to save this season.
FIFA laughed Barcelona off the phone a week ago when the club tried to claim that, in light of Rafinha’s injury, it should be able to register Arda Turan — who technically is a Barca player, but isn’t allowed to participate in games until January because of the sanctions. It was sound, if convoluted, logic; clubs usually are allowed to add an unregistered player to their active roster outside of the registration windows if another player goes down for the year, but FIFA held the line, communicating to Barcelona that a punishment isn’t really a punishment if you can wriggle out of it once you’ve encountered a bit of bad luck. The Catalans have appealed FIFA’s ruling to the CAS, which is unlikely to help them.
It’s important that FIFA is doing the right thing here—not because rules are rules and picayune sports justice needs to be served, but because Barcelona's transgression has much steeper ethical implications. Barca would argue that a child can receive no greater soccer education than at La Masia, and that the club was bringing teenagers in from continents away to look after them and prepare them to play at the highest level.
But phenoms flame out and clubs give up on players. A lot of promising 15-year-olds become 20-year-olds whose star has fallen and are just barely hanging on, playing in regional leagues, earning less than a living. To bring a kid across the world to meet that fate is inhumane, and one way to keep that from happening is strict enforcement of Article 19. It’s there to protect children from the predatory impulses of clubs blinkered by talent-lust.
Barcelona is suffering because it deserves to suffer. Other clubs in Spain have been accused of similarly immoral practices, and we should hope that if they did wrong, they are punished just as severely. FIFA is a wretched organization that neglects many of its sport’s ills while its corporate malfeasance creates new ones out of whole cloth, but in this particular instance, it’s doing some bona fide righteous regulating—even if it’s making the world a better place in the way an oil company does when it throws a token million at a clean-air nonprofit.
Now, about that exceedingly corrupt toadish gentleman who’s in charge ... is he going to leave or what?