Myth: Joining a football academy abroad depends on merit and/or funding
Fact: FIFA doesn't allow academies to recruit foreign players younger than 18
You may be wondering (like some other Parents who approach us for consultations):
How can your child move to a reputed football academy abroad?
Two things are needed for such a move:
- Potential (long-term) in the game, and
- Permission from FIFA
The first point is quite intuitive. But long-term Potential is not easy to figure out as it involves many elements that 99.9% of Parents and young Players or even many Coaches don’t know much about. You can learn more here.
The second point though - permission from FIFA - is unique to the World of Football. And is even more important than ability or potential of your child in any move abroad.
If your child has an inclination towards any other field like tennis or golf or piano or painting, there is nothing stopping your child from moving to another country for better training as long as you accept and fund such a move. Not so in football.
According to FIFA’s rule (article 19) - your child can’t be admitted to any FIFA recognized academy abroad until the age of 18 - unless parents move there too for reasons not connected with football. Regardless of how good your child is or whether the club pays or you pay.
Here I will explain this rule, its implications for your child and what you need to do instead.
Lionel Messi - one of the World’s greatest footballers of all time - was born in Argentina and moved as a 13-year-old to Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy in September 2000. He was always physically small - 4ft 10in and 39kgs at the age of 13; and needed expensive growth hormone injections due to a genetic deficiency. His family could not afford them. So, Barcelona football club paid all the costs, gave his father a job and relocated his family – all this so that Messi would attend their academy and become their future star player.
In hindsight, selecting Messi seems like a no-brainer. But by the time Messi first arrived in Barcelona, two famous Argentinian clubs, River Plate and Newell’s Old Boys, had already reneged on their promises to his family for payment of his injections. Barcelona also took a very long time to commit. At 13, it was a huge long-term gamble for any club to make, even though he was outstanding.
In spite of Minguella’s push and the highest recommendation of every coach in La Masia who saw him play, Barcelona signed a contract only in March 2001. And payments were delayed beyond July 2001. Frustrated, Messi and his father were on the verge of leaving the club. To prevent this, the club’s technical secretary, on his own initiative and against legal advice, signed the first agreement with Messi’s father in a paper napkin in a restaurant and the club’s administrative director paid for the injections out of his own pocket till the club started paying for them.
The path of Messi is a fairytale in so many ways. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be repeated due to a subsequent rule by FIFA.
FIFA restricts the international transfer of minor players (under 18) through its Regulations for the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP), Article 19. According to these rules international football transfers are only permitted for players aged 18 or above.
There are only four exceptions to this rule:
The fourth exception relates to minors who have never registered with any club.
This rule applies to players of all ages, whether professional or amateur. It applies even when the clubs can prove that they ensure the personal welfare and education of the players alongside football.
With the booming rise in club incomes due to player sales, a huge arbitrage opportunity opened up for football clubs in the 1990s.
European clubs got young players through agents at low costs from South America and Africa and sold them after a few years at high premiums.
This was a big business organized by an international network of agents in collusion with some clubs.
The agents quite often signed exploitative contracts with minor players through their guardians. It unfortunately led to a widespread human trafficking issue.
FIFA brought the rule on International Transfer of Minor Players to address this problem.
The rule has good objectives, but it has led to another issue. FIFA stops movement of young players even in cases where there is no exploitation. Player development is the biggest casualty in the process.
For instance, the first Japanese superstar footballer and the first recipient of the Asian Player of the Year award in 1993, Kazuyoshi Miura, left his family at the age of fifteen and went to Brazil for a few years to train better. His family funded the trip and the rest, as they say, is history.
Craig Johnston…Kazu Miura…Lionel Messi…so many other players over the years have left home at a young age and honed their skills in distant lands.
Asian and American parents are now more willing to fund the football aspirations of their children and move them to other countries to develop in the game. But FIFA doesn’t allow this.
For a long time this was a toothless law, as FIFA couldn’t monitor such transfers and clubs continued bringing promising young players from all over to Europe. Over time the clubs also widened their net and reduced the rejection rates by having better scouting at source and/or partnering with local academies.
But in 2010 FIFA implemented a global transfer management system (TMS) whereby all international transfers need to adhere to the following process.
Through the TMS, FIFA can monitor every single international player transfer and it became very aggressive in implementing this rule. FIFA has imposed lengthy transfer bans on clubs found guilty of recruiting minors and even the likes of Barcelona, Chelsea and Real Madrid have been punished.
So clubs all over the world are now extremely careful about not breaking this rule.
Your child can’t move to any other country with the main objective of playing football till the age of 18, unless the child is an EU citizen (in which case the limit is 16-years for moves within EU).
Such a move is prohibited by FIFA regardless of whether:
- It is a merit based (like Messi – club funds the stay) and/or
- It is self-financed
The child can’t play in any tournament or league for any club or academy recognized by FIFA.
The only way for your child to go to any elite academy abroad before age 18 is if your family relocates for reasons other than football and then your child gets selected to play in an academy near the place of residence. One has to prove that the move is not football related. FIFA is extremely strict.
There are several cases like Ben Lederman (from US) whose entire family moved to Barcelona, and in spite of the parents working in the city, was ruled ineligible by FIFA to play at the La Masia academy. The entire family had to reluctantly relocate back to the US.
Or the South Korean Messi, Lee Seung-woo, one of the reasons for Barcelona’s two-year transfer ban, who was spotted at 12 by the club and brought over to La Masia, only to be sent back to Korea at 16.
A few private academies now offer expensive training in Europe to youth players. Some also advertise their connections with football clubs and promise scouting and trials in those clubs. I have come across cases of youth players from US, India and China who have taken admission in such training programs. This is not productive and is a sheer waste of money.
These private academies are not recognized by FIFA and hence can’t be held accountable to any standard. They also can’t participate in any FIFA approved leagues – only friendly matches or amateur leagues or short duration tournaments.
Friendly matches or amateur leagues don’t help much – no reputed academy anywhere relies on these to develop players - they simply lack the competitive intensity needed for player development.
Short-term tournaments - even ones with reputed teams - can’t offer the benefits that a regular high-quality league does. This is like fasting for 6 days and overeating on 1 day of the week in the quest to be healthy.
Players joining such academies play outside the regular system of competition where elite (non-amateur) clubs participate. Moreover, elite academies (any professional or even semi-professional academy) won’t be scouting such players or offering them any trials till the age of 18. By which time, the lack of regular high-quality competitive exposure leaves them far behind others.
So, such players are left with poor career prospects at high financial and social costs to their families. They would in fact be better off with getting regular high quality football within their own city or country.
You need to keep this in mind before making plans to send your child to any academy abroad. Relying on private academies outside the FIFA purview will be counter-productive and can lead to long-term pain in multiple ways.
Given the vast difference in standards and football ecosystem, it is a fact that an Asian or American player would benefit by being part of the football system in Europe or South America.
And one can’t predict when FIFA will modify this rule to allow genuine parents/players to play abroad. In the meantime, if you choose to wait, it may be too late for your child.
But there is a smarter way in which your child can still progress much further than the competition.
In fact, Your Child can improve much more (at least 60-80% more) than he/she is doing right now at the very same place (city/country) where you are currently located.
For this you understand the exact differences in the football ecosystems at the World’s best academies compared to where you are currently residing. And bridge those gaps by better planning and focused interventions for your child.
You can find out how to do so in our Masterclass: click here to access
It gives you all that you need to know in order to maximize your child’s potential in the game - wherever you are located.
If your child is serious about pursuing football and you are keen to support that interest, please watch the Masterclass and use it for your child’s utmost benefit.
- FIFA stops footballers below 18 from moving long-term to another country
- Joining non-regulated private academies abroad is not advisable
- Your child can improve much more – where you are – if you take the right steps
Hawkins, Ed. (2o15). The Lost Boys: Inside Football’s Slave Trade. London: Bloomsbury Sport