On 25 October 2016, FIFA announced that the FIFA Disciplinary Committee has sanctioned the Real Federación Española de Fútbol (the Spanish FA) (the “RFEF”) for breaches relating to the international transfer and registration of players under the age of 18.

According to FIFA’s press release, the RFEF was found to have:

“…violated several provisions concerning the international transfer and first registration of minor players, of which art. 19 of the Regulations on the Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (the “Regulations”) is the main provision, as well as other relevant provisions with regard to the registration and participation of certain players in competitions.”

As a result of breaches of the Regulations, the RFEF was fined CHF 220,000 and granted a deadline of six months in order to regularise its regulatory framework and the existing system governing the international transfer of minors in football within the country. The FIFA Disciplinary Committee also issued the RFEF with a warning and a reprimand in accordance with articles 13 and 14 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code.

FIFA’s decision relates to its investigation into the transfer of minor players who were involved with and participated in competitions with Atlético de Madrid and Real Madrid CF between 2007 and 2014 (Atlético) and 2005 and 2014 (Real Madrid).

This is not however the first time the RFEF has been sanctioned by FIFA for its involvement in respect of breaches of the Regulations regarding minors.

On 2 April 2014, the FIFA Disciplinary Committee determined that the RFEF had violated article 19 of the Regulations (together with various other provisions) in the context of the transfer and first registration of certain minor players that had been involved with or had participated for FC Barcelona. In that case, the RFEF was initially fined CHF 500,000 and granted a period of one year in which to regularise its regulatory framework and the existing system in place regarding the international transfer of minors in football. The RFEF was also issued with a reprimand, in accordance with article 14 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code.

So what are the rules that were breached?

Article 19 of the Regulations states that the international transfer of players is permitted only where they are over the age of 18. However, Article 19(2) of the Regulations sets out three exceptions to this rule:

  • Where the player’s parents move to the country in which the new club is located for reasons not linked to football.
  • Where the transfer takes place within the territory of the European Union or European Economic Area (EEA) and the player is aged between 16 and 18.
  • Where 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.

The general prohibition set out in the Regulations also applies to any player who has never previously been registered with a club, is not a national of the country in which he wishes to be registered for the first time and has not lived continuously for at least the last five years in that country (article 19(3)).

Every international transfer under article 19(2) and every first registration under article 19(3), as well as every first registration of a foreign minor player who has lived continuously for at least the last five years in the country in which he wishes to be registered, is subject to the approval of the subcommittee appointed by the FIFA Players’ Status Committee.

In the Barcelona case, the RFEF appealed the sanction of the FIFA Disciplinary Committee to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (the “CAS”). In its decision, the CAS found that the RFEF had acted in breach of articles 19(1), 19(3), 19(4), article 5.1 and article 9.1 of the Regulations in respect of the transfer and registration of minors. Notwithstanding that finding, the CAS reduced the sanction from CHF 500,000 to CHF 280,000.

In response to the CAS decision, FIFA stated that it was “pleased to see that CAS had confirmed all the findings reached by the FIFA Disciplinary Committee as well as the grounds of the decisions.” FIFA added further that “CAS has ratified FIFA’s efforts to protect underage players” and noted that “[t]he protection of minors is of major importance for FIFA. Young footballers are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation when they are in a foreign country without the appropriate controls. For FIFA, protecting the appropriate and stable development of a minor as a whole should prevail over purely sporting interests…”

That FIFA takes the protection of minors very seriously was also shown in its press release regarding the Barcelona sanction, in which it stated that:

“The Disciplinary Committee underlined that FIFA takes the protection of minors in football very seriously. The protection of minors is one of the key principles included in the agreement concluded between FIFA, UEFA and the European Commission in 2001. The Disciplinary Committee acknowledged that young football players are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in a foreign country without the proper controls. This particular fact makes the protection of minors in football by the sport’s governing bodies, especially by FIFA, even more important.”

While many of the infringements that are the subject of the investigations into player transfers involving Barcelona, Atlético and Real Madrid are historic in nature, the outcomes are fairly damning for the RFEF, a national football association that is required under the FIFA Statutes both to comply with FIFA’s regulations and to ensure that its members do likewise.

FIFA has made clear the primacy it considers the protection of minors should be given. The RFEF must now be on its guard to ensure that the regulatory framework it has in place is fit for purpose, regularised and, most importantly, enforced.