PFA Player Relations Executive James Johnson recently wrote the following column for Goal Weekly, an Australian football newspaper.

Like many aspiring Australian footballers, my dream was to follow in Harry Kewell’s footsteps by moving overseas to develop in one of the world’s top Academy programs. At 16 I was given this opportunity by training and on a few occasions playing in England’s Premier Academy League. Today, I would not have been able to receive this opportunity, because under FIFA’s Regulation of the Status and Transfer of Players (“Regulations”), Australian players under the age of 18 are prohibited from transferring internationally.
Article 19 of the Regulations provides that international transfers are only permitted if the player is over 18. There are 3 exceptions to the general rule, which are summarised as follows:
a) the player’s parents move to the relevant country for reasons not linked to football;
b) the transfer takes place within the territory of the European Union and the player is at least 16; and
c) the player lives near a national boarder and the relevant club is located close to that boarder (the maximum distance being 100 kilometres).
Exceptions b) and c) are obviously not relevant to Australian players, which only leaves exception a).
FIFA’s reasoning behind introducing Article 19 was to protect minors. In particular, it came as the result of many cases of minor abuse and attempts to provide them with a stable environment for training and education. Speaking at the 2009 FIFA Congress, FIFA President Sep Blatter summarised this reasoning, “it is [FIFA’s] duty to the youth of the world to protect young players… stop the slavery of these young players.” Many players’ associations around the world support this reasoning as it is, without doubt, crucial for minors to be protected.
While it is noble for FIFA to try to protect minors, the practical operation of Article 19 is counterproductive to young Australian players by severely limiting their football development opportunities. This is particularly so when there is clearly no trace of abuse and players are denied better training and education opportunities overseas than what they currently have access to on our shores.
Professional Footballers Australia (“PFA”) research has showed that, as a general rule of thumb, it is in a player’s best interest to exhaust the Australian system before moving overseas as many international transfers can go wrong. You only need to look at the recent case of Danny Vukovic who moved to Turkey on a 3 year contract, but was back in the A-League 2 months later after his contract was unilaterally and unjustly terminated by the club. There are obviously exceptions to this research, such as Harry Kewell who developed through Leeds United’s English Premier League Academy. Article 19 would have prevented Harry from moving to Leeds as a minor. We would not have seen Harry playing in the English Premier League at 17 under Article 19; no longer will we see minor Australian players emerging in the world’s top leagues as he did.
The players mostly affected are those who are overlooked for our own elite development programs (such as the Australian Institute of Sport or the Victorian Institute of Sport) and are offered training and education opportunities at overseas clubs, but cannot pursue those overseas contracts because of Article 19. Accordingly, they miss out both in Australia and overseas. Where would Brad Jones, who was overlooked in Australia but was picked up by Middlesbrough at 16, have developed if Article 19 had applied to him? Compare this to a European player who is overlooked for a German Bundesliga development program. Under Article 19, the European player still has the opportunity to develop at one of the other 17 Bundesliga clubs, or further, any club within the EU – Manchester United, Barcelona, AC Milan, Paris St. Germain, Ajax Amsterdam… How is this fair?
In short, it is not fair on young Australian players. Our players should have the right to transfer internationally if it is in the best interest of their training and education to do so. If a player has a better opportunity overseas to develop as a footballer and receives a good education in the meantime, why should he be denied that opportunity? The strict enforcement of Article 19 by FIFA and Football Federation Australia (“FFA”), which denies players this right, is a challenge and the PFA is working on a solution to it.
There are 3 Court of Arbitration for Sport (“CAS”) cases that have questioned the lawfulness of Article 19: Cadiz and Acuna v FIFA (2005) (“Acuna”), Real Club Racing de Santander v FIFA (2007) and Midtjylland v FIFA (2008) (“Midtjylland”). Acuna held that Article 19 was lawful, because it pursued a legitimate objective, namely the protection of minors from international transfers which could disrupt their lives. Midtjylland endorsed Acuna. Importantly, Midtjylland provided that the exceptions contained in Article 19 were not exhaustive and that the international transfer of minors was allowed in cases involving students where the:
1. player’s reason for the international transfer was related to studies, and not to football activity; and
2. association of origin and the player’s overseas club had entered an agreement for a development program for young players.
Point 1 above would concern players who move overseas for their studies, but wish to continue playing football while doing so. An example of this exception would be a young player who accepts an athletic scholarship to attend a US college and play in the college leagues. Point 2 remains untested, but it would seem that an international transfer for a minor is permitted if an agreement for a development program was signed between the FFA and an overseas club, despite not being listed in the Regulations.
The PFA is currently working towards developing such an agreement to test this exception.  Moreover, the PFA is continually trying to develop innovative ways to provide young Australian players more opportunities, even when a regulation such as Article 19 restricts them. When a young Australian player has a better training and education opportunity overseas than what he has in Australia, then he should not be denied that opportunity.
James Johnson is the Player Relations Executive at Professional Footballers Australia. A former player himself, James is an advocate for the well-being of players and the game itself.