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Interview with James Johnson, former Head of Professional Football, FIFA

The sports industry is a multi-conglomerate essentiality to the global economy. Estimates running up to $1.3 trillion illustrate the various networks created by multitudinous sports corporations. At the heart of this commercial enterprise sit African football talent; in particular, youth who aspire to have a successful career in the sports industry. Football, specifically, generates billions in revenue and attracts hopeful young players from all over the world, especially from underdeveloped countries.

 

In many countries, youth with little or no access to education dream of traveling to other nations to escape a life of poverty by becoming professional football players. Opportunistic and often unscrupulous agents look to make big money from selling ‘dreams’ to vulnerable children and families willing to migrate to unknown places for a better future.

To combat this alarming phenomenon, in the early 2000s, FIFA put in place measures to safeguard the movement and transfer of underage players. Article 19, in FIFA’s Regulation on the Status and Transfer of Players (‘RSTP’), states that international transfers of players are only permitted if the player has reached at least 18 years of age. This regulation was designed to restrict the movement of underage players and prevent the trafficking of young footballers.

We caught up with James Johnson, the former Head of Professional Football at FIFA, to assess the effectiveness of this measure so far.

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Over 15 years after its introduction, has Article 19 lived up to the initial expectations?

The primary original objective of the minor rules was to protect minors from mistreatment when transferring abroad. This objective remains sound. However, I question whether the rules go further than this stated objective and whether the status quo has resulted in other unintended consequences, such as unnecessary labor market restrictions for players and placing obstacles before clubs capable of providing optimal training and education opportunities for minors. I think the rules would better achieve their original objective by an enhanced focus on lifting the standards that clubs must meet in order to recruit minors.

What challenges have the football governing bodies faced in tackling child trafficking in football?

Boys in LaosI think the football governing bodies have done a solid job with reactive sanctions on trafficking cases in football. For example, in 2015, FIFA took action against perpetrators in a case where West African players were trafficked to Laos in breach of the rules. A challenge for the industry is being able to proactively prevent these cases from occurring. I question whether the football governing bodies are equipped to do this on their own.

There is wide discussion in world football on reforming the transfer system. Should the ’reformed’ transfer system include new rules on the movement of minors?

I would like to see a robust club licensing or accreditation system in place for the recruitment of minors. In such a system, if a club wishes to recruit a minor then the club would need to be licensed or accredited by FIFA or a Confederation. Standards could then be built into the system to ensure that minors who move internationally are provided high standards of training, education and living. Put simply, those clubs that meet exemplary standards should be able to recruit minors. Those that cannot should not. Such a system would, in my view, place the best interests of the minor at the core of the rules and better achieve their primary objective.

Agents are often involved with transferring minors internationally. Should there be global licensing standards on agents to protect young players?

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Yes. In general, it would be in the interests of clubs and players for governing bodies to introduce high licensing standards. This would enhance services the agent provides to the relevant client. There are many agents who would also support such a system. In developing standards, specific requirements should be placed on agents dealing with minors. The standards should also be consistent globally since trafficking involves movement across borders. FIFA recently announced that it will introduce a new set of agent regulations, including a registration and licensing system. I think this is the right direction, but the real test will be whether the new system can be effectively enforced.

Generally, as well as in football clubs, there doesn’t seem to be enough awareness of the scale of the problem of child trafficking in football. Why?

There is limited information and data on trafficking in football. Football governing bodies rely on cases that go through the system, but this is an issue that obviously occurs outside. I think the football industry – and possibly other sports – would benefit from a deeper understanding of the whole supply chain behind the trafficking of minors. This could only be achieved through research and analysis. To my knowledge, there has been little research and analysis done on trafficking in football to date. Thus, there is an opportunity to fill this space.

 

Why is the problem of child trafficking normally mentioned in connection with football? Other sports, though in different ways, are also involved. How could football take the lead on this issue?

I would hypothesize that there are more potential trafficking cases across borders in football as compared to other sports simply because football is the biggest and most international sport. I think the football industry needs to be realistic about what football governing bodies are capable of on their own and where cooperation with others could enhance the ability to prevent trafficking. I think there is an opportunity – and even a need – to bring the football governing bodies together with governmental authorities and NGOs. Practices to prevent trafficking would improve if each of these groups unite to share information, knowledge and address the issue in a coordinated manner.

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This article is part of a series of interviews conducted by Mission89 on child trafficking in football with key sports administrators, personalities, academics and educators.

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