More than cash at stake when signing young talent
When Barcelona divulged to FIFA around three years ago that they may have broken the rules on signing foreign-born footballers under the age of 18, the club told the world governing body that, in any case, those rules should not apply to an academy as celebrated as theirs.
They are, after all, the club that imported and subsequently developed the greatest cross-border talent of modern times, perhaps the greatest talent of all time, Lionel Andres Messi, of Rosario, Argentina. Sixteen years ago, with a competing offer from AC Milan on the table, Messi was an expensive gamble and Barcelona took the chance, moving his family to Spain and funding the 13-year-old's growth hormone programme.
Nowadays, you have to wonder whether they could be so bold. First there was Barcelona's two-window transfer ban last year for breaking Fifa rules on signing foreign players under the age of 18 and now it is Real Madrid and their neighbours, Atletico, who face the same sanction for the same misdemeanour.
The clubs involved say they obtained the licences to register the boys legitimately, and that there is a wider question at stake here: why stop a young boy joining one of the greatest football clubs in the world simply because he happens to have grown up in another country?
That attitude was demonstrated last week by Barcelona director Albert Soler, who insisted that his club's Masia academy "must be an exception to the FIFA rules", adding generously that for now these were "rules that we agree with and adhere to".
There were at least 51 foreign-born boys at Real Madrid who contravened FIFA regulations. The reported cases at Barcelona numbered 31. There is no question that these boys were treated to the usual high standards of care and education, never mind the football development, but to focus on that overlooks an essential truth.
These are children. The key reason that a big European club would wish to sign them is, at heart, a commercial one. The difference between the 13-year-old prodigy and the 25-year-old mature player could be as much as €50m, and that value is only going up.
The big clubs will argue that the sophistication of their coaching and development programmes makes for better players, and certainly there is something to be said for that. But let us not pretend that the clubs are picking up novices and turning them into superstars. Messi, for instance, was already one of the best prospects in South America when Barcelona signed him.
FIFPro, the global trade union for professional footballers, sees no reason why child prodigies, however good they are, should not grow up in their own communities, living normal lives with their friends, and training at clubs that are, at the very least, within their own country.
Wil van Megen, the chief legal counsel to FIFPro, said last week that Europe's biggest clubs believe they can offer greater opportunities for children to improve as aspirant young players but that "the human rights aspect is more important".
"You should not be hassled by clubs choosing you in order that they can have better players," he said. "The interest of the club is always a sporting and commercial interest."
FIFPro deals with severe cases of exploitation, with trafficked players from Africa subsequently abandoned in Europe. Or the recent case of trafficked Liberian child footballers in Laos. But even at clubs where there is a responsible and well-rounded programme of care for the children, the question remains: in whose best interests is this being done?
Cesc Fabregas and Paul Pogba were 16-year-olds who left European academies to come to Premier League clubs and made a success of their careers. Gael Kakuta's move to Chelsea, aged 16, at one point looked like it might cost the club a two-window FIFA transfer ban over a contract dispute with Lens. It was overturned in the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Kakuta now plays for Sevilla and, despite all the early promise, is still not a full France international at the age of 24. Even for the success stories, who is to say they would have done any worse by staying at home for longer?
The football transfer system was also intended to facilitate a trickle-down economy. The earlier a player moves in his career, especially if he does so in his childhood, the cheaper he is for the buying club and the less his original club benefit.
In Belgium, where under 18s can be legitimately recruited cross border by foreign clubs as long as they live within 100km (62 miles), released players have encountered problems returning to play in their native professional game. Belgian law forbids its clubs from paying Fifa training compensation so good players are forced into the amateur game.
There is always the rejection. The nature of elite sport is that it will produce hundreds more broken dreams than it does stars and for those who left their home country at such a tender age that failure will be that much more disruptive to their lives. As for the few who make it, the big clubs will get their prodigy cheaper than if they waited to sign him as a man. But is that really the most important consideration?