Over the last few weeks, the so-called “La Masia case” has taken a new twist. FIFA has decided to toughen up on the sanctions facing certain canteranos, not only forbidding them from playing in official competitions (as it has been the case ever since this situation first burst onto the scene), but also from training and even residing in any of FC Barcelona’s facilities. What could be better, then, than a comprehensive review of the timeline of events to enable us to better understand the extent of this tragedy?

On October 20th, 1979, the newly-renovated La Masia building (an old farm house situated beside the Camp Nou) was officially inaugurated as the residence for all of the underage players who lived too far from the club’s premises. They were accompanied by new facilities which were to serve as a training centre, pre-match meeting spot and an area for individual work for Barça’s promising youngsters. Managed by that time at an institutional level by Josep Mussons and at a sporting level by Oriol Tort, La Masia’s objective is not only to build on the talent of Barça’s canteranos and introduce them to a very specific footballing culture but to optimise their intellectual, personal and social training.

The first canteranos trained at La Masia who made it to the first team were Pedraza, Milla and Fredrera. They were followed by players of the calibre of Amor, Guardiola, Sergi and De la Peña in a steady trickle of talent which soon sped up once the dugout was inherited by Johan Cruyff, who decided that the team would be made up by a nucleus of canteranos complemented by quality players coming in from outside the club. Just like that, La Masia began to recruit talent from abroad, with its greatest success coming when the starting XI in the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup final which consisted of 9 canteranos (Valdés, Piqué, Puyol, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Thiago, Cesc and Messi) with Pedro and Fontàs coming on from the bench.

While this was happening in Can Barça, international concern was increasing regarding the trafficking of young players of African and Asian origin who came to Europe by the hand of agents acting like outlaws, who ended up leaving them in the gutter when they failed to progress in the ever-complicated world of football. To put an end to these activities, FIFA’s Regulations on the status and transfer of players now includes article 19, which declares that underage international signings are forbidden with three exceptions: that the parents have relocated to the new country for reasons not linked to football (paragraph 1), that they are over the age of 16 residing in the EU and comply with certain conditions (paragraph 2), and that the player lives no further than 50km from a national border and the club with which the player wishes to be registered in the neighbouring association is also within 50km of that border (paragraph 3).

Barcelona, whose La Masia had been used by FIFA itself as an example of good practice regarding the training of young players, didn't worry about a rule whose spirit (the defence of underage players) was always respected, and continued to accept the arrival of young foreign players who dreamed of succeeding in Europe’s best underage set-up, players to whom the Catalan Football Federation (responsible for the delegation of the Spanish Football Federation’s permits for grassroots football at an autonomous level) gave a federative license without any hindrance whatsoever.

Until the perfect storm broke out.

In February 2013, an anonymous tip proposed FIFA to request information from the club about the situation of the Korean player, Lee Seung Woo. In addition, Barcelona, of its own accord, offered information about another Korean player (Jang Gyeol-hee) who was in a similar situation.

Seeing the path that things were taking, the then-president, Sandro Rosell, proposed to FIFA a major change in article 19 of the Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players with the twofold aim of making it more effective and allowing the legalization of the players being investigated. Jerome Valcke, FIFA’s secretary general, responded in July, stating that Barcelona’s request would be examined at the end of the year, something which never happened.

In May 2013, FIFA extended its investigation to 16 players along with underage foreign signings, a list which would end up affecting 37 players, including those who had not acquired a federative form. In September, FIFA informed the Spanish Football Federation about the institution of disciplinary proceedings as a result of the information received thus far.

After further information requests and the club’s subsequent sending of said information, on November 28th, 2013, FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee decided to sanction Barcelona, but the decision was not communicated to the club until four months later, with no FIFA official ever explaining the delay. Strangely, and despite having already passed judgement on the club, in December 2013, FIFA continued to request information from Barcelona, and even invited the club to do a presentation on La Masia’s training model at a conference organised by FIFA itself.

It wasn’t until April 2nd, 2014 that the club finally received notification of the sanction from FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee, which concluded that in 9 of the 37 cases investigated, Barça had violated the Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players. First of all, the club made an appeal to FIFA, then to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), with the support of the Spanish Football Federation. The defence’s line of argument was based on two principles: the obvious compliance with a rule whose very spirit was to protect underage players who were enjoying privileged conditions in La Masia, and the mere recognition of bureaucratic negligence caused by a lack of concision in the written version of the regulations, but without violating the regulation. As an example of the absence of bad faith on the part of the club regarding its actions, you only have to take note of the fact that the club did not offer employment contracts to the parents of the children affected in a single one of the cases, a standard practice at other clubs to invoke the first exception to the ban on signing underage foreign players. Without denying the first principle, FIFA and CAS dismissed the arguments for technical reasons, even considering it aggravating that a club as professional as Barcelona had not carried out the necessary steps correctly.

The penalty imposed by the Disciplinary Committee originally consisted of forbidding the club from registering new players at all levels during the next two two transfer markets, a financial penalty and forbidding the club from registering any of the young players affected in official competitions. But in August, FIFA informed Barça that the punishment will be even more severe, telling them that, not only will the youngsters affected be forbidden from registering for official tournaments, but they will not even be allowed to train or live in the club’s facilities.

The latest chapter in the story unfolded last week when FIFA requested the temporary inhibition of another 11 players until their cases have been revised. In the meantime, the Spanish Football Federation is not allowing the players to be registered, arguing that the club cannot make any additions to the squad until the next January transfer window. All of this despite the fact that the sanction expired on August 31st, and that there are no transfer windows in the non-professional categories, so players can, in theory, be registered at any time. The club’s legal services assure that all of them meet the standards. For example, Xavi Simons, a Dutch youngster from Infantil B, settled in Alicante with his family when his father, the ex-footballer Regillio Simons, hung up his boots. Therefore, the first exception to the ban on signing young foreign players (the parents moved to Spain for reasons not related to the signing) applies to them. As well as that, he played for Club Deportivo Thader before playing for Barça, meaning that we are not talking about an international transfer either. A few cases which could be at risk involve some players who were signed before they turned 12, something permitted by the Spanish Football Federation but not by FIFA.

This is where the facts end. Now let us try and make sense of them.

Beyond the signs that show Barça is taking a battering from and being made a scapegoat by FIFA (the fact that the case has been borne from anonymous tips, the delayed communicating of the sanction, or the lack of official actions against other clubs in similar situations), it is evident that the club is paying for the negligent manner in which the affected cases were managed. Whether it was because of too much trust with respect to the spirit of the rule or simple arrogance, the club skipped on some formalities and it is only fair that they pay the consequences. It is pointless trying to justify yourself afterwards by arguing that these practices have also been habitual at other clubs and even accepted by the federation itself. And if a rule does not seem reasonable, you should attempt to change them, not just ignore it.

Nevertheless, throughout the club’s handling of this case, one area in which they cannot be faulted is proclaiming Legal Defencelessness after FIFA’s latest communications regarding a change of criteria in the extent of the ban were done over the phone, with no written document that Barça could use as foundation for a legal case. Despite that, the club has complied with FIFA’s new instructions, fearful of provoking even stronger punishment if it fails to do so.

But a very different topic is how it concerns the players affected. By preventing them from playing in official competitions, FIFA has condemned these boys to be the victims of the case, rather than those it claimed it sought to protect. These young men, who had accomplished their dreams by travelling to Barcelona and becoming integrated into the club’s ways, saw how FIFA was stopping them from playing all because of some administrative error of which they were completely unaware. In light of this new situation, the first departures soon took place: in August 2014, the Dutch prodigy Bobby Adekanye was sent on loan to PSV and, having recently turned 16, ended up signing for Liverpool this past summer. At the beginning of 2015, after not having played for a year and a half and facing the prospect of continuing in this void for another five years until he reached the legal playing age, the Japanese Takefusa Kubo (13) also threw in the towel and returned to his home country. He would be followed by the French Kais Ruíz (12) who, after leaving Barcelona, ended up signing for PSG.

FIFA’s extreme cruelty with the reported youngsters peaked with the extension of the ban to also include training and residence at La Masia. With this decision, FIFA is clearly going too far with its powers, since it goes beyond ruling on official competitions and on to interfering in the players’ personal lives. Thus, taking the case to court would have every chance of succeeding. Despite this, the club, fearful of reprisals from FIFA, will not go down this route and has preferred to take the licences away from the players affected as a preventative measure, as was announced in a statement on August 20th. As a result, the 15-year-old North-American player, Ben Lederman, has had to return to his home country after living with his family in Barcelona for four years. His parents responded by issuing a tough statement in the New York Times in which they accused FIFA of ruining their son’s life and said that they were considering appealing to CAS more specifically. Another affected player, the 16-year-old Cameroonian Patrice Sousia, has been forced to leave La Masia, where he had been residing. Barça has committed to continue paying for his studies and upkeep until he turns 18 and can officially return. The Korean Jang Gyeol-hee will also be forced to leave, although once he turns 18 in April, it is hoped that the club will be able to give him a second chance in the 2016/17 season. Finally, the Dutch Fode Fofana and the Venezuelan Matías Lacava, both members of the Infantil A squad, have also been affected by these latest measures despite not being among the first cases investigated and have been forced to leave the club. As for the 11 youngsters temporarily suspended last week, they are expected to play and train again once these cases have been revised, although this may not happen until January.

So, of the nine players initially affected by the sanction, now only three remain at the club: the French Theo Chendri, who can now play for Juvenil A as he is from a country in the European Union and has recently turned 16, and the Koreans Paik Seung-ho and Lee Seung Woo, who are in the same team but as yet unable to play. The former, now 18, just needs to wait until the opening of the next January transfer window (when Barça will be able to sign players again) to be registered, while Lee will turn 18 next January, which means he will be able to be registered at the same time. All that remains for them now is the last three months of this storm.

We are now witnessing the latest abuse from FIFA, an organization tarnished by corruption cases which is now trying to clean up its image by pretending that it is a shining example of protection of underage players, but with such ineptitude that it ends up destroying the lives of those it claims to protect. I can think of no better words than those of Ben Lederman’s father to the New York Times to express the absurdity of the current written version of the rule and of the interpretations of it as demonstrated by FIFA’s recent actions: “If my son were a talented musician or dancer, there would be no question if his family moved somewhere so he could learn from the best teachers in the world. In soccer, however, a family cannot simply decide in which country they want their child to play.”

With the current regulation, Lionel Messi would not have been able to come to Barcelona when he was 13. This would have prevented him from getting access to the medical treatment which his hormonal disease required, the cost of which was covered by the Blaugrana club when no Argentine team was willing to do it. In other words, with the current regulation, Lionel Messi would never have been a Barça player and, even worse, he would never have went from being a gifted youngster being held back by an illness to the very top of the game.

Is this really how we protect underage players?

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