Not Exceptional Enough: Oscar Bobb’s Uselessly Close Article 19 Case
Article 19 of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players remains a tough wall to clear. Generally, the rule bars clubs from signing foreign players under age 18, except in three limited circumstances. The most controversial of these is exception (a), which allows the transfer if the player’s parent moved to the new club’s country for reasons “not linked to football.”
Exception (a) is a narrow road. Most often, FIFA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport have deemed the parent’s claim of an irresistible job opportunity to be a cover for the real motive: the player’s opportunity at a foreign club. Bolstering this is the fact that, in some cases, the non-soccer reason has been an invention — and transparently so.
Nonetheless, other times, the distinction between the parent’s career opportunity and the son’s soccer opportunity can blur. Both may arise gradually over months, and both may pull the family to a new city with relatively equal force. It is just such ambiguity that brings us to Oscar Bobb.
Bobb is a Norwegian winger who has been on European clubs’ radars since he was 10 years old. In June 2016, weeks before he turned 13, FIFA denied his attempt to register with famed Portuguese club FC Porto. Bobb had moved to Porto about nine months earlier, with his mother, Gunnes Turid, an established professional actress who had taken a job with a theater company in the city. After FIFA’s denial, Turid kept her job and remained in Porto with her son. Bobb then tried to register with Juvenil Escola de Futebol Hernan Goncalves (“Goncalves”), a local youth club with no apparent connection to FC Porto.
Still, FIFA denied the registration. And a sole arbitrator at the CAS affirmed.
The arbitrator’s opinion is instructive for three reasons. First, it clarifies what has been a vague and contradictory standard for determining whether a move qualifies for exception (a). Second, it addresses the unique situation where a player tries to register with a different club, in a country where he has already been denied. Third, Turid had credible non-soccer reasons for being in Porto. And she backed them up by remaining there after FIFA denied Bobb a place at FC Porto. So by denying Bobb the exception, the arbitrator’s opinion indicates that, at least for high profile youth prospects, the instances where exception (a) applies will be rare.
The story begins in early 2013. At the time, Bobb was nine years old and lived in Oslo with Turid, who had sole custody.
Turid was a professional actress. According to the record, part of her job involved “organizing theatre projects with immigrants in European countries.” At the “beginning of 2013,” this led her to PELE, a theater company in Porto that organizes projects for disadvantaged kids. Due to their mutual interests, Turid and PELE began discussing a professional collaboration.
Initial Connections with Porto
About a month after connecting with PELE, Turid accompanied Bobb to Portugal, where he played in a youth tournament. During the competition, she approached FC Porto to inquire about whether Bobb could play there whenever she traveled to Porto for work. The club agreed.
Over roughly the next two years, Turid came to Porto “several” times for work — each time, with her son. The specific purpose was preparing a collaboration between PELE and Turid’s employer, Nordic Black Theater Company. During these visits, Bobb trained at FC Porto’s academy. He also played with them in international tournaments in the summers of 2013 and 2014.
The Permanent Move
In September 2015, Turid took a job with Kale, a dance and theater company in Porto. To this point, her only work in Porto had been with PELE. There is no indication she had previously collaborated with Kale. There is also no indication she received or considered a job offer from PELE.
Bobb joined his mother in Porto, where he attempted to register with the city’s flagship club. This opportunity dissolved when FIFA ruled that Article 19 barred FC Porto from signing him. The decision left Bobb without a home for his considerable talents.
Nonetheless, he and his mother stayed in Porto. Turid continued working at Kale. And they found Bobb a new club, the noticeably smaller Goncalves.
Like FC Porto, Goncalves submitted Bobb’s registration to FIFA for approval. They bolstered their entry with a declaration affirming they (1) had no link to FC Porto and (2) first learned of Bobb in January 2017, when Turid arrived at their facility unannounced.
Despite these new factors, FIFA again denied the registration.
Technically, this case ruled on Bobb’s transfer to Goncalves. FIFA had already denied his transfer to FC Porto, and neither Bobb nor the club appealed.
Still, the FC Porto transfer remained central to determining whether exception (a) applied to the Goncalves transfer. Again, exception (a) targets the reason the parent moved to the new club’s country. In this case, the new club was Goncalves, which is in Portugal. When Turid first moved to Portugal, the potential soccer reason was matching her son with FC Porto. So to evaluate whether the move to the new club’s country sprang from non-soccer origins, the arbitrator had to confront the FC Porto transfer.
The Standard — Football’s Role in the Decision
As I have explained previously, the CAS and FIFA evaluate the “not linked to football” exception through a somewhat contradictory standard. First, the exception does not apply unless the player’s parent moved to the foreign country for reasons “entirely independent of the footballing activity of the minor.” Thus, if soccer were any part of the decision, the exception would be unavailable. In the same breath, panels have also held that, if soccer is one of several valid reasons for a move, they will “assess the weight of the football-related reason.” In short, if a move does not stem from entirely non-soccer reasons, the exception will be unavailable — that is, unless soccer is one of multiple reasons, in which case it will be weighed against the others.
From these schizophrenic holdings, the Bobb arbitrator extracted the following rule: “As to the standard of proof to be employed, the Sole Arbitrator endorses again a strict approach in favour of high standard of proof and the respective exception may be granted only if its conditions are established ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.”
Consequently, he ruled against Bobb and Turid because “It cannot be excluded that the mother’s move to Portugal was heavily influenced by the fact that her son had already a realistic prospect to join FC Porto and to continue his training and his football activity with an important club.” (Emphasis added).
Taken at face value, this holding adds clarity to the standard. First, it strikes a mild compromise between the principles that, on one hand, the move must be divorced entirely from football, and on the other, football can be a lesser factor among several. For one, the new formulation drops the idea that the move cannot account for soccer. Then, for instances where soccer is one of multiple reasons, the arbitrator specifies how significant it must be to foreclose the exception. Namely, it must have “heavily influenced” the move.
Second, to get the exception, the onus is on the player to exclude the possibility soccer “heavily influenced” the move. Theoretically, this means a panel could still deny the exception if it believes the chances soccer “heavily influenced” the move are unlikely. As such, the burden is on the party claiming the exception, and that burden is significant.
Third, the “prospect” of joining the new club must be “realistic.” There may be cases where this benefits the player by excluding a club’s initial inquiries from the chronological analysis. But the statement could cut in the other direction. It could, for example, mean a talented enough player is known to almost every club and, therefore, has a “realistic prospect” of joining any of them, regardless of when they first contact him.
Lastly, the arbitrator notes that the club Bobb wanted to join (at least the first time) is “important.” In previous Article 19 cases, the panels placed little, if any, direct emphasis on the club’s importance. Nonetheless, its inclusion makes sense. If a player’s parent moved to a new city, and he sought registration with a lesser club in that city, the parent’s claim that soccer did not influence the move would be more credible. After all, most families would not relocate, primarily, to afford their son a mediocre sporting opportunity. In Bobb’s case, imagine if Goncalves had been his first registration, rather than his second. The arbitrator may have concluded that, in most situations, playing for a modest local club would not be the force driving a family to move over 2000 miles to a foreign country. But when that club is FC Porto, soccer becomes a more likely draw.
The Chronological Test
To determine whether a player’s move was “not linked to football,” the CAS emphasizes the point in the moving process when the club and player made first contact. If first contact predated moving plans, the CAS is unlikely to approve registration. Conversely, if the family began preparing to move before any contact with the club, this increases the chances registration will be allowed.
To this point, most published Article 19 cases have fallen neatly into one category or the other. For example, the CAS approved the exception in A v. Atletico Madrid, involving a player from Chicago who wanted to register with Atletico. His family decided to move to Madrid in 2012, obtained visas in early 2013 and moved in July 2013. Atletico did not know about the player until August 2013, when he attended an open tryout at the club. The CAS reached the opposite conclusion in several instances where moving preparations began after the club showed interest. These include cases where Cadiz and Real Madrid, respectively, were denied exceptions because they signed the player in question before his parents secured jobs in Spain. Similarly, Ajax’s attempt to sign American John Hilton failed because Hilton was a coveted talent, whom the club had learned about years before his family considered moving.
In Bobb, the moving preparations are more difficult to pinpoint.
Turid began discussions with PELE about a regular collaboration roughly 1–2 months prior to her first contact with FC Porto. But according to the arbitrator, this was not a real employment opportunity — at least not for Article 19 purposes. As the arbitrator observed, Turid’s discussions with PELE were “tentative.” They did not lead to a job offer or even a proposal for a permanent collaboration. And the collaboration that did occur did not generate enough money to qualify as supplementary employment in Portugal.
With the PELE project removed from the timeline, Turid did not pursue a job in Porto until 2015, when she moved there on a permanent basis. Indeed, Turid’s witness statement indicates she viewed the job with Kale as her first opportunity to move to Porto:
“I was proposed a job at Kale in April 2015 and moved to Porto in time for my son to begin school in the beginning of September. So I had 4 months of preparation. Mentally, I was prepared and had prepared my son before this as I began to understand already in October 2014 that it might be possible to move to Porto on a permanent basis.”
Turid does not make similar statements about how she “prepared [her] son” to move or “began to understand…it might be possible” to move in relation to the PELE collaboration. So in effect, she admits her plans to move began in roughly October 2014. This was almost two years after her first contact with FC Porto and at the end of a 16-month period when Bobb trained and played with the club. Thus, based on the chronological test, Bobb did not qualify for the “not linked to football” exception.
That aside, Turid’s saga does expose the inherent weakness in a black-and-white test like the one employed by the CAS. While Turid did not plan a permanent move until late 2014, she established non-football reasons for moving to Porto in early 2013. This was prior to her first contact with FC Porto. Further, depending on the length of her trips, handling childcare for her son back in Oslo may have been an issue. As such, Turid may have needed to take Bobb with her to Porto and, consequently, may have needed to find him a place to train during their stays. The point is that Turid and Bobb’s eventual move may have been for non-football reasons, even if their concrete moving plans occurred after contact with FC Porto.
The Goncalves Signing
After FIFA denied Bobb’s attempt to register at FC Porto, Turid did not return to Oslo or seek another professional club to harvest her son’s talent. Instead, she and Bobb remained in Porto, and she kept working at Kale. Meanwhile, they downsized Bobb’s soccer profile by registering with Goncalves, a local youth club without a men’s senior team. Speaking practically, this adds a coat of authenticity to Turid’s non-football ambitions in Portugal.
Speaking legally, however, the arbitrator dismissed these events as irrelevant. By Article 19’s plain terms, he may be right. Section (2)(a) only provides an exception when the “player’s parents move to the country in which the new club is located for reasons not linked to football.” (Emphasis added). So even though Turid may have remained in Portugal for reasons not linked to football, this was separate from her decision to move there two years prior.
Nonetheless, the decision to remain may deserve a place in the Article 19 analysis. Whether a family moved for “reasons not linked to football” is a question of intent. Here, Turid’s conduct after FIFA denied the FC Porto registration may recast the intent behind her initial move. And while this may not be enough to save Bobb’s place at FC Porto, it could establish that the exception applies to his place at Goncalves.
Compared to their predecessors, Bobb and Turid had a decent case for exception (a). The move fit, or arguably enhanced, Turid’s career. The family’s connections with FC Porto came after Turid established non-soccer reasons for moving to the city. Further, Bobb and Goncalves raised the credible argument that examining football opportunities in a new city is a standard part of the moving process. In other words, the timing of concrete moving plans may not actually be as relevant to whether a move is “not linked to football” as FIFA contends.
Nonetheless, FIFA, and later, the CAS, made short work of Bobb’s claims. Their approach was almost hyper-technical: Turid’s concrete moving plans began after FC Porto and Bobb established their connection. Therefore, the move must have been driven “to some extent” by soccer. In turn, if the move to Portugal was for soccer reasons, any subsequent transfer to a Portuguese club was, by definition, ineligible for exception (a).
From this, it is hard to envision many scenarios where an elite prospect — a youth player with a big enough reputation to attract foreign interest before moving — could qualify for exception (a). In most cases, any club in the new city would know about him prior to the move. And if he were truly that good, ensuring a quality soccer environment would be integral to any move — even one driven by non-soccer reasons. A responsible parent would not only inquire with clubs in the new city but may even factor them into the ultimate decision to move. Thus, it would be the rare case where an elite player crept into a city unnoticed with parents ignorant of his soccer options.
Random Observations Unleashed
- On his 16th birthday, Oscar Bobb signed with Manchester City. This was available through exception (b) to Article 19, which allows players to transfer within the European Union after they turn 16.
- Here are some highlights of Bobb this past season.