An old saying in Spanish soccer is that crises travel with the Puente Aereo. The Puente Aereo is the shuttle service which Spain’s national airline set up to connect the two major cities of the Iberian Peninsula to ensure there were hour-long flights every 15 minutes between Barcelona and Madrid. The flight were set up for business people, politicians and anybody else wanting to bridge smoothly the space between cities and territories that have some historic hostility but also a mutual interest in getting things done, efficiently and together.
The saying reflects the reality that if Barcelona aren’t in crisis, then Real Madrid must be, by definition. And vice-versa. It is usually applied to results or league standings. Now it is very applicable to institutional concerns. A crisis that has hampered Futbol Club Barcelona over the last 12 months, and was relieved barely a week ago, has now shuttled suddenly to Spain’s capital city.
FIFA, the beleaguered world governing body of soccer, announced Thursday that Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid, would be banned from registering new players for the duration of the period Feb. 2016 to Feb. 2017 because both clubs have been found to have infringed regulations on the recruitment of foreign players under the age of 18. FIFA have applied stringent policies, in order to prevent the exploitation of minors, on the travel and resettling of adolescent footballers in the last decade, and investigations around the application of their rules have now found the three leading Spanish clubs in breach in the space of 18 months.
Real Madrid and Atletico have indicated their determination to appeal the bans. Barcelona, found in 2014 to have broken the same rules, also appealed, without success and have only now come out of a 12-month embargo which started in Jan. 2015 on registering new players. Their crisis is now finished and flown, rapidly, to the Madrid clubs who they regard as their chief rivals. Real and Atletico will from June envy Barcelona and their apparent privilege at now being able to sign, but are also grateful — seeing how the punishments FIFA ambushed Barca with affected the team enabled Barca’s rivals to prepare a little in case the same happened to them.
"It’s completely untrue that we fielded players aged under 18 without registering them with the RFEF (Spanish Football Association) and that we failed to comply with the regulatory requirements," Real Madrid director general Jose Angel Sanchez told Marca on Thursday. "This club has a set of ethical values and the people in charge in this area have never violated them. The arguments made are erroneous."
The fact is that elite European clubs have been in the business of aggressively seeking out the best junior talent en masse on a global scale for close to quarter of a century. At its worst, the scouring of traditional talent mines in South America and Africa for young prodigies can seem imperialistic and ruthless, and the consequences of jettisoning boys and teenagers who don’t turn out to have the gifts, or drive, or credentials for the job of a leading footballer can be very damaging to vulnerable, expatriated minors. FIFA’s efforts to protect such individuals is among the best initiatives the governing body has launched in the 21st century.
Spain is, according to most recent available records — from 2014 — the leading European importer of foreign footballers under the age of 18 into professional clubs. There is nothing inherently suspicious, or exploitative, in that; partly it’s a natural consequence of the attractiveness to junior footballers of La Liga, whose best clubs perform better than anybody in the most elevated competition in club football, the UEFA Champions League, than any other domestic league. Partly it’s because there’s a clear link between Spanish clubs and the South American continent, nursery of so much of the best young soccer talent.
But the fact Spain’s leading three clubs, each of them Champions League finalists in the last two years, have now been found in breach of the rules on acquiring younger teenagers indicates FIFA regard some Spanish practices as dubious, as reckless in the strategies used to hire minors as potential stars or to gain the agreement of their parents that certain Spanish clubs are the right places for their sons.
In purely sporting terms, competing clubs will see an advantage in the ban, as a serious setback for Real Madrid and Atletico. No club in the new millennium has made more fanfare of its ability to auction up higher than the rest in bidding to sign the world’s best as Real Madrid has. It set new summits for the highest fees ever paid for a player when it signed Luis Figo followed by Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima, David Beckham, Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. Atletico, since winning La Liga in 2014, have made a virtue of recruiting cleverly, and often, while selling expensively, and often.
But both clubs anticipated the possibility of these sanctions. They saw how Barcelona adopted similar tactics to their own in trying to grab the best Under-18 players from outside Spain and that, if Barca had tripped up according to FIFA regulations, Real Madrid and Atletico may well have done, too. What is sure is that the habits of high turnover at both clubs — Real Madrid have sold stars of the caliber of Mesut Ozil and Angel Di Maria in the last three seasons; Atletico have sold the likes of Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Arda Turan in the same period — must now alter, temporarily, because the newcomers to replace the departures will no longer exist.
This may not be a bad thing for stability. Barcelona would testify to that. In the year of their registration ban, 2015, they won five out of six trophies available to them. Real Madrid and Atletico, for now, can only hope to follow in the same path.