In light of Arsenal latest swoop, is it time for a policy reform?

With news that Arsenal have completed the signing of Feyenoord’s Dutch U17 attacker Kyle Ebecilio, is now an important time to make an overhaul of transfer regulations in order to aid smaller clubs to better protect their most coveted talents?

Arsenal have excelled in the international recruitment of young players, best highlighted by their 2003 capture of 16 year old Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona. Arsenal, like many top teams, have successfully exploited Spanish employment law which forbids clubs from signing players until they are 18. The same inconsistency has been exploited in Italy seeing a number of Italian clubs lose players they have developed from a young age. It should be clear that my qualms are not with Arsenal for their transfer dealings; they are virtually pioneers in youth recruitment. The issue is to do with regulation in the vast number of cases as top teams are able to, directly or indirectly, influence young players and cause them to opt out of contracts and become free agents (compensation paid is only for the cost of said player’s training) – all before the age of 18.

Though FIFA has attempted to curb player power and top club influence on youngsters (Kakuta at Chelsea is the most recent case), it is fighting a battle that is fraught with legal ramifications; Freedom of Movement of individuals is one of the fundamental principles upon which the EU is founded. It is a player’s right, if they are an EU citizen, to move from – in Kakuta’s case – France to England where his weekly salary is paid by Chelsea. A danger for FIFA should they attempt to take cases like Kakuta’s to national court is that their argument would probably be held as being incompatible with EU law. Where does that leave the clubs who have lost the talents they invested in and developed?

“We did what we could do by offering the kid a contract on time,” explains Feyenoord technical director, Leo Beenhakker, “But he wanted to wait – again this is his right. That he now goes to Arsenal means that we only get a training allowance. This is the story of [Chelsea defender Jeffrey] Bruma; he was also a great talent that unfortunately never played for us. I treasure Ebicilio highly.”

I feel a little sorry for Beenhakker because he has seen two highly valued and extremely talented youths who, and here’s the crucial part, Feyenoord developed, be prised from him by the understandably alluring overtures of top teams. Yet this is not an issue restricted to foreign youth as Leeds United have lost a number of academy players in recent years (Michael Woods and Tom Taiwo are two examples who signed for Chelsea at 16, resulting in Leeds receiving a £4million settlement from Chelsea). But should it be in the best interests of the game to eradicate these types of transfers and allow the smaller clubs to hold onto their biggest talents for a while longer?

Up to a point I do think the rules need new insights. The first thing to address is the inconsistency in national regulations; differing countries fall under their own trade laws for youth products. But the difficulty, as mentioned above, is striking a balance between FIFA rulings and EU law. The biggest stumbling block at the moment is top English clubs seeking the best players, and the best players, invariably, are not English. The current climate of talent poaching necessitates that the Dutch for example, must continue providing technically gifted players because they lose so many at a young age. By the same token, we know we can look abroad for the best talents and thus neglect grassroots football in this country. The order of causation is one I’m uncertain of i.e. do English clubs look abroad because home-grown players aren’t up to scratch or are home-grown players not up to scratch because English clubs persist on looking abroad?

Conversely the argument is simple: what difference would it make for Feyenoord to hold onto Ebicilio, or any smaller team to hold onto their best talents, for two more seasons if it is only delaying the inevitable? These young players deserve the right to choose the destinations that their talents dictate. But the transfer of minors remains an ethical issue with many individual circumstances to consider; youth players should focus on their development and long term future instead of swift financial gains (but what happens when the two go hand in hand?) and the consideration of their parents becomes an added dimension – especially when some parents may not be in receipt of beneficial and informed long term advice.

So, considering the allure and power of Europe’s top clubs alongside the current legal climate it seems that there will be no end in the transfer of under 18s. Do you think smaller clubs deserve more protection? Or is this an unavoidable imperative of modern football?

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