The Young Soccer Professionals

Soccer is the most popular sport in the world. That has been true for many years. Soccer in the United States is growing, especially with the growth of Major League Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League, and the successes of our women’s and men’s national teams.

The sport is widely played here in the USA. According to the Sport and Fitness Association, 17.8 million Americans played soccer in 2020, compared to 2.3 million who played ice hockey. 1.2 million kids aged 13-17 played soccer in 2020. There are literally thousands of soccer clubs all across the country.

Make no secret, many young soccer players aspire to become professionals. Many of them dream of playing professionally here and in Europe. Many of them want to do this as soon as possible and are willing to sacrifice a “normal” childhood to make this happen. Social media is full of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts of young soccer players with posts of their game footage, video highlights or just messing around with the soccer ball in their backyard. They want these posts to be seen, hopefully by someone who can help them become a professional.

But – even if you’re good enough – can anyone just sign a professional contract? Are there any restrictions or requirements before signing? Can a 14-year-old American citizen sign a professional contract with an MLS club? With a USL club? With a club overseas?

Many individuals don’t know that FIFA regulates this specific issue and provides a framework for who can sign a professional contract, when they can sign a professional contract, and under what circumstances they can do so. Specific provisions relating to international transfers involving minors were first introduced by FIFA in 2001. Through the years, the regulations have been modified. The current regulations are based on a simple framework: a clear rule incorporating several exceptions.

Let’s start with the rule. Under the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players, Article 19 provides that “international transfers of players are only permitted if the player is over the age of 18.” What does this mean? If you are a young American soccer player, you cannot be the subject of an “international transfer,” i.e., sign a professional contract with a club outside of the USA, until you are 18 years of age (with limited exceptions that we will discuss below). So, that 15-year-old soccer player who only holds a US passport cannot sign a professional contract with a European club until he or she is 18 years old. Note that even if a national law states that an individual is deemed to have reached the age of majority at the age of 16 or 17, an individual from that country will continue to be considered a minor for purposes of the FIFA regulations until they turn 18 years old.

 

Now, here are the exceptions to this rule:

  1. A player who is under the age of 18 can transfer abroad if his or her parents move to the country in which the new club is located for reasons not linked to soccer. In other words, if a parent of a minor player moves to a new country for reasons that have nothing to do with soccer, and the player follows them, the player should be able to continue to play soccer in their new home country. FIFA has stated that for this exception to apply, the reasons behind a decision by a minor’s parents to move to a new country must not be at all linked to soccer, or, where a variety of reasons are at play, the motivation must not be predominantly or mainly linked to soccer. The chronology of the events relating to the move to the new country plays an important role in determining whether this burden of proof is met or not met.

 

  1. A player between the ages of 16 and 18 can transfer abroad if the transfer takes place within the territory of the European Union or the European Economic Area or the transfer takes place between two associations within the same country. This exception is triggered irrespective of the player’s nationality. A minor player does not need to be a national or citizen of an EU or EEA member state. This is an exception that might be the most important for young American soccer players to understand. This is the exception that allowed Christian Pulisic to move to Borussia Dortmund when he was only 16 years of age. He was able to obtain a Croatian passport as a result of his Croatian heritage. Because he also had a Croatian passport (in addition to his US passport), his transfer was considered to be within the EU, and allowed when he was 16 years old. Also, in order for this exception to apply, the club must provide the player with adequate football education and training; adequate academic and/or vocational education and training; and care, supervision and accommodations (i.e., providing the player with a trusted host family to live with or living at the club’s campus).

 

  1. A player under the age of 18 can transfer abroad if they live no further than 50km from a national border and the club where they want to play in another country is also within 50 km of that border.

 

  1. A player under the age of 18 can transfer abroad if they are fleeing their country of origin for humanitarian reasons, specifically related to his life or freedom being threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, belonging to a particular social group, or political opinion, without his parents and is therefore at least temporarily permitted to reside in the country of arrival.

 

  1. A player under the age of 18 can transfer abroad if they are a student and move without their parents to another country temporarily for academic reasons in order to undertake an exchange program. The duration of the player registration for the new club until he turns 18 or until the end of the academic or school program cannot exceed one year.

There are other regulations associated with minor transfers, but these are the main regulations that minors (and their parents) should understand. FIFA strictly implements these provisions. Their stated goal is to protect minor players from being compromised. FIFA has noticed that through the years, some unscrupulous clubs and individuals have gone to incredible lengths to circumvent the rules on the protection of minors. For instance, intermediaries or soccer agents have legally adopted talented young players purely to make use of the exception granted when a child’s parents move countries for reasons not linked to soccer. Other players have forged their passports, while some clubs have employed one of the minor’s parents as a gardener or secretary in an attempt to bypass the regulations. Therefore, FIFA has stated that the only way to avoid this sort of mistreatment and abuse of young soccer players is by applying this article in a rigorous and systematic manner.

For more information, contact Mario Iveljic, who is a Partner and one of the Founders of Mag Mile Law. He is also a registered soccer agent (intermediary) with the U.S. Soccer Federation. He can be reached at [email protected], or (708) 576-1624.

 

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