Exploiting the Spanish Youth System RulesBy: Lachlan | October 4th, 2011
My interest in the topic of this blog began as I was scrolling through the usual baseless rumors about various transfer targets. I found a rumor about a young player in the Barca youth system named Gerard Deulofeu. Naturally, since I’m a donkey at all of this, I’d never heard of him, despite the fact that he’s the “next Messi” and all that. Anyway, the part of the report that intrigued me the most was he “is on a youth contract with a £3 million buy-out clause.”
To a casual reader, that doesn’t really mean anything. However, I started trying to compare that to what I thought I knew about the Spanish youth system. And what I thought I knew was that there are no youth contracts in Spain, and so there are no buy-out clauses in the first place. So I decided to investigate this matter a bit, and see what I could learn about youth systems and the rules that govern them.
I’ll start with FIFA’s position on youth contracts and transfers. FIFA allows players under the age of 18 to sign contracts, but those contracts may not be for longer than 3 years. I wasn’t able to find the rules for every country, but I know that Italy and Spain have rules that do not allow players under 18 to sign professional contracts. England, on the other hand, does allow it.
Last year, the European Court of Justice ruled in a case involving a 1997 transfer of a player named Olivier Bernard. That decision ensures that all clubs will be compensated for the money spent on training players between the ages of 16 and 22, if those players sign professional contracts elsewhere. The exact amounts are complicated, and you can read more about them here. But basically, the point of it is that clubs signing players do have to compensate the former teams, but that can often be a nominal amount, especially when the player is a unique talent.
That leads us to a discussion of Jon Toral. In February of this year, Barcelona president Sandro Rosell called Arsenal “immoral” over the signing of Toral for a mere £350,000. Following in the footsteps of Fabregas, Pique, Merida, and many others, Toral moved to England and signed a professional contract. From a Barca point of view, this is certainly frustrating. They spend a lot of time and money training the best players on earth, but because of the more restrictive Spanish rules, they sometimes lose top players to big English teams. (If you think I’m having a pity party for Barca, I’m not – more on that later.)
After reading the report on Deulofeu, my immediate question was why Rosell couldn’t have just signed Toral to a youth contract, and at least instituted the same buy-out clause that Deulofeu has (£3 million). And if there can be youth contracts with buy-out clauses, why stop at merely £3 million? Why not fully protect yourselves from “immoral” outsiders?
At that point in my thinking, I decided to turn this question over to some outside help, as I often do. I asked some questions to Ade, who writes for the Barca Offside site. Ade called in some help from the @YoungCules Twitter site as well. I also called in some help from a few others – Elisa from Forza Futbol, and Linda Hui, who wrote an interesting blog on this topic a while back as well. Everyone was very gracious in helping out. (As an aside, that’s one thing I’ve enjoyed in my time as a blogger – everyone I’ve asked for help on various topics has been more than willing to help out.)
Anyway, my first order of business was to sort out whether or not an under-18 Spanish player can sign a contract. The answer from Ade and Elisa is that they can sign a pre-contract, but apparently only with limited wages and a limited buy-out clause. Ade also said that some players choose not to sign a pre-contract, because they want to make it easier to sign a full, professional contract somewhere else. Apparently, this is what Toral was thinking. My next question, which Elisa answered, was how Spanish teams are ever able to hang on to their best youth players. And of course they do hang on to plenty of them, as we’ve seen with so many of the current Barca regulars. Anyway, Elisa’s answer was in line with what we might have guessed. Basically, young kids want to be close to home, in a familiar environment, and with the hopes of making into the senior club at some point. So if it’s just a matter of just waiting another year or two, and then getting financially rewarded, it’s worth the wait for many young players. And finally, my last question to Elisa was whether there’s any talk in Spain about changing the rules to conform with those in England, but her answer was that Spain is hoping to pressure the rest of the EU and UEFA to conform to what they’re doing in Spain.
Turning back to the rules in England, there’s currently a rule for players under 16 that they must live within a 90 minute drive to the club. Obviously, this rule works against English clubs, whereas the Spanish rule works in their favor. In Spain, clubs can bring in youth players from outside the country. Messi arrived from Argentina when he was 13. So for a big English club, there’s a bit of a limitation as to what they can do with players under the age of 16, but then the doors are swung wide open after that. (Some are blaming the English youth rules for the poor performance by the national team at the last World Cup, but that’s not my concern as an Arsenal blogger living in the U.S.)
So what does all this mean for Arsenal, and what should our club be doing? Well, first of all, I wouldn’t lose one wink of sleep over being “immoral.” I tried to count all the built-in advantages that Real Madrid and Barcelona have over Arsenal, and here are the big ones that came to my mind:
1) more favorable tax rates
2) better weather
3) a much more favorable La Liga tv rights deal that gives the lion’s share of money to two top teams
4) fewer legitimate domestic rivals (Six of Forbes’ most valuable clubs reside in England alone, whereas only two are from Spain.)
5) assorted local government assistance.
So with all of that in mind, am I shedding a tear over Arsenal’s “immoral” poaching of Toral? Not one bit. I say, while we’re at it, let’s be more immoral. The fact is, every club has certain advantages and disadvantages to offer. One player might be attracted to more playing time at a lesser club, while another player might be attracted to playing a minor role on a big club that wins all the time. But either way, the club has to accentuate its positives, and use them to its best advantage. If there’s one regulatory advantage that Arsenal has over Barca at the moment, it’s the youth contract system.
Now, the tricky part is how exactly to go about poaching players. I would think it’s pretty difficult to figure out how good a 16-year-old in Spain is, without having a scout at every practice and match. And even if you could figure out how good a young player is, it’s even more difficult to figure out how good of a player he’ll become after a few years.
But at the same time, I think it’s pretty clear that Barcelona’s La Cantera youth academy is considered the top system in the world at the moment. You can read this article, which gushes its praise. Anyway, without having to send scouts all over Spain and Italy, I think we could at least set up shop in Barcelona and a couple other places, in hopes of finding a few more Torals and (hopefully) Fabregases. And yes, Fabregas is a sore subject for us right now, after his departure back to Barca. But still, his capture many years ago was one of the big windfalls in Arsenal history, in terms of what we paid to get him, what he did for the club, and what we sold him for in the end. So I don’t look at getting another Cesc as being a bad thing at all.
Well I hope you now know everything you wanted to know about youth systems, plus a little more. I think I’ll take a little break from blogging for a few days, since these last two blogs took so much time. But JG will stop by soon with more blogging goodness for you. And if you really want a fix, please see our new Twitter account as well, which is @OffsideArsenal.
Rebuke is more effective for a wise man than a hundred blows on a fool. Proverbs 17:10.