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Chelsea, Kakuta, and What Childhood Means in Football

Say there’s a violin prodigy. He’s 10 years old, and he plays Mozart the way other kids play Halo. He gets accepted to the music school near his house, where he’s immediately the best student. He works hard, and in a few years, the schools offers him a spot in its conservatory, which is a feeder for the local symphony. It’ll be a few more years before he’s old enough to enroll, but he’s happy at the school, so he agrees.

But the thing is, he keeps getting better. His natural technique is phenomenal, he practices nonstop, and by the time he’s 16 he’s ripping through Paganini caprices and everyone around him is thinking that if he plays his cards right, he could have an incredible future as a soloist. Around this time, another conservatory shows up, not the local school this time but a world-renowned international institution, and offers him a scholarship spot. They want to pay him to go to their school and learn from some of the best musicians on the planet. It’s an amazing opportunity, and he desperately wants to take it, but there’s a problem: he already has this agreement to go to the local conservatory. So what happens?

The answer’s obvious, right? The local school hates to let him go—they’ve invested a lot in his development—but we’re talking about a 16-year-old kid. Yes, they had an agreement, but he made it when he was 14, for God’s sake; there’s no way it’s fair to stand in the way of his talent and his future over a statement of intent he made as a child. The school swallows its disappointment and wishes him good luck. He thanks them for everything they’ve done and goes on to the conservatory to follow his dreams. Happy ending. Roll credits.

Or—since we’re talking about soccer, not music, and the real issue here is the punishment FIFA have handed down over Chelsea’s signing of young Gaël Kakuta—maybe the local school demands a cash payment to drop the agreement, the conservatory refuses, the prodigy breaks the deal and enrolls in the conservatory anyway, the local school accuses the conservatory of predatory talent-poaching, and a pedagogical tribunal that’s convened to hear the case bans the prodigy from performing for four months, slaps him with a massive fine, and forbids the conservatory from admitting any new students for the next calendar year. But really, that’s a better situation for everybody, right?

What’s gotten more or less lost in the discussion of this story, which has generally focused either on the idea that FIFA are “finally standing up to a big club” or on the question of whether FIFA are biased against the English, is the fact that we are talking about a freaking child. As we speak, Gaël Kakuta is two months past his 18th birthday. He signed with Chelsea when he was 16, breaking a pre-contract agreement he’d made with Lens when he was 14 years old. Now, for the crime of going to the club where he thought he’d have a better chance of developing what everyone agrees is an extraordinary talent, he’s been fined €780,000 by FIFA, quietly vilified in the press, and told he can’t play for four months.

The big-club-vs.-small-club narrative is so ingrained in football that we reflexively see anything that benefits a smaller club at the expense of a bigger club as “fair.” But this isn’t fair. We’ve gotten so used to seeing Premier League clubs as wicked developers strip-mining the talents of poorer continental clubs that we’ve started thinking the latter have some kind of moral right to control the futures of their very young trainees. But players that age ought to control their own futures. In any other field, we’d look at this story and see Lens standing in the way of the right of a child and his parents to decide what’s best for him. In football we see the kid as a strategic weapon in a quasi-declared class war in which his preferences don’t really count.

Last season, when Federico Macheda started playing well for Manchester United and Lazio’s president complained that Man Utd had “stolen” him, the media basically endorsed the familiar impression of the predatory English club snapping up young players they had no right to approach. Everyone lamented the fact that Italian clubs aren’t allowed to sign players to contracts till they’re 18, giving them no protection against poaching. But the reason Italian clubs aren’t allowed to sign players that young to contracts is precisely so that adolescent players can make up their own minds about where and how they want to learn the game—in other words, to allow transfers precisely like Macheda’s to happen without interference.

Macheda wasn’t an asset or an employee, he was a kid with a spectacular talent, and it was up to him to decide what to do with it. It was too bad for Lazio that he chose Manchester United, but more importantly, it was good for Macheda. The system worked exactly the way it should, even if it went against the grain of the big-clubs-bad consensus, because the system shouldn’t be designed to protect the interests of football clubs when it comes to 16-year-old players. It should be designed to protect the interests of the 16-year-olds.

In France, unlike in Italy, players can sign pre-contracts long before they’re old enough to play professionally. FIFA apparently considers those pre-contracts to be as binding as actual contracts, meaning that Chelsea and Kakuta probably are in violation of the regulations governing player transfers and probably will be punished. But the rules that created this situation are wrong and ought to be changed. Clubs, like nearly every other institution that deals with children, ought to understand that they don’t have the right to profit from them. 14 is too young to vote and to drive a car in most countries, France included; it’s too young to possess full self-determination, and it’s too young to be bound by “the principle of honoring contracts.” Players that age shouldn’t have to mortgage their own futures so that Lens can be guaranteed a paycheck.

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Chelsea, Kakuta, and What Childhood Means in Football

by Brian Phillips · September 4, 2009

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