No FIFA Article 19 resolution in sight for Liga MX clubs

Jonathan Navarro's dream of becoming a professional footballer for a Liga MX club appeared to take an important step forward in the summer of 2015.

Born and raised in San Jose, California, to Mexican parents, forward Navarro was spotted at an Alianza de Futbol showcase event in Sunrise, Florida, the type of which attracts eager scouts from Liga MX clubs searching for talented, United States-based Mexican nationals. Scouts liked what they saw in Navarro and he headed to Santos Laguna in June 2015, at age 16.

But after six months in northern Mexico and a total of zero official games for Los Guerreros' youth teams, Navarro -- formerly of the U.S. U-17 residency program -- returned to the U.S. in time for Christmas. The reason? Navarro couldn't be registered with the Liga MX club via the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) because of Article 19 of FIFA's regulations on the status and transfer of players, which is designed to stop the international transfers of minors across borders.

"I was upset because I felt that it was a waste of my time, not just in soccer but in school," Navarro told ESPN. Navarro is currently playing for Bay Area club side P.A.C. Indios and is hoping Liga MX clubs will still be interested when he turns 18 in August.

The number of others in similar situations to Navarro is unknown, simply because the players haven't been registered, but there are at least three other U.S.-born minors currently training in Guadalajara at Chivas, either waiting to turn 18 and be registered or hoping for a change in FIFA's rules. It should be noted that while Chivas are known as being a club that fields only Mexican players, the Mexican-Americans at Chivas are born Mexican citizens according to the Mexican constitution (by having one Mexican parent). However, the club does not allow the players to play for the U.S. national team.

Paradoxically, other minors who appear to have arrived at Mexican clubs in similar circumstances -- such as Mexico youth international Edwin Lara at Pachuca and U.S. youth international Jonathan Gonzalez at Monterrey -- continue to play in Liga MX youth teams. Both are minors from California.

Last month, ESPN reported on the multifaceted issue of Mexican-American minors heading south to join Mexican clubs and how it relates to Article 19, exposing how the issue has concerned Liga MX institutions since the Barcelona transfer ban and the suspended bans for Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.

The fear for Mexican clubs is twofold. The first worry is that Liga MX institutions won't be able to mine the U.S. for dual Mexico-U.S. nationals, thus limiting an attractive source of recruitment. Second, there is the fear that FIFA could retroactively impose sanctions for possible widespread breaches of Article 19.

Since the ESPN story came out, there has been a strong reaction within Mexico. FMF president Decio de Maria asked FIFA to understand the realities of the fluid Mexico/U.S. border and the phenomenon of migration between the two North American countries. Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla said the issue could involve up to 500 Mexican-Americans, but stated he isn't worried about potential repercussions or sanctions.

The counterargument from Mexican soccer is basically that Liga MX clubs are giving minors like Navarro, Gonzalez and Lara an opportunity to become professionals -- and, after all, they are Mexican citizens heading to Mexico with the blessing of their parents, many of whom were born in the country.

But should FIFA investigate -- and the FMF has confirmed that FIFA has been in contact with them -- the issue would be played out in a legal setting at FIFA's Disciplinary Committee and perhaps eventually at the Court for Arbitration in Sport (CAS).

"FIFA will examine each international transfer of a minor on a case-by-case basis," sports lawyers Carol Couse and Jake Cohen, from the United Kingdom firm Mills & Reeve, said in an email correspondence with ESPN FC. "It is entirely reasonable, and even likely, that some of the transfers in question fall under one of the three exceptions under Article 19(2)."

Those exceptions include a player's parents moving to Mexico for nonfootballing reasons and clubs close to the U.S. border signing players from 50 kilometers into the U.S., which would only really seem to involve Club Tijuana and FC Juarez.

The Spanish-speaking Couse, whose clients have included Manchester United, MLS and Angel di Maria, is well-versed in Article 19 issues, having advised numerous clubs and players on such transfers. Cohen has written about legal, economic and financial issues in the game for ESPN and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. Cohen also assisted ESPN's investigation into potential breaches of Article 19 by Liga MX clubs.

They note that the investigation into Barcelona for signing foreign minors took almost two years from start to finish. They believe that if Mexican clubs are found guilty, "it's reasonable to expect heavy sanctions to be imposed."

While De Maria and Bonilla have emphasized in interviews that they intend to seek dialogue with FIFA -- so that they understand the specific circumstances surrounding players like Navarro, Lara and Gonzalez -- Couse and Cohen don't believe it will be so legally straightforward. In fact, they anticipate a "difficult battle."

"The overarching importance of the protection of minors has led to both FIFA and the CAS being very strict in its application," they write. "FIFA appears to have determined that strict enforcement and heavy sanctioning of any violations of the protection of minors is necessary to stem the tide of the too-often-seen worst-case scenario -- children, usually from Africa, are taken to European clubs with the (often false) promise of a trial, and then left abandoned and homeless by unscrupulous agents when the player isn't signed by the club."

The Liga MX counterargument, envisage Couse and Cohen, could be that the cases are substantially different from the Barcelona example and other Article 19 breaches because "these are nationals moving back to their country of parental origin, where they would benefit from the same rights of residence and employment (and potential state aid) as other nationals, in the event that their promising football career failed to materialise."

However, they add: "While there may be a justification for an additional written or unwritten exemption to Article 19 for these Mexican clubs seeking to sign young Mexican-Americans, FIFA's argument is undoubtedly going to be that a relaxation of the restrictions contained in Article 19 would open up the floodgates for potential abuse and undermine the rationale behind the strict enforcement of these rules -- namely, the protection of minors at all costs."

The Court for Arbitration in Sport (CAS) -- the equivalent of the "supreme court" of sport -- did find an "unwritten exception" to Article 19 in the Bordeaux vs. FIFA case in 2012. FIFA originally had blocked the transfer of dual Argentine-Italian national Valentin Vada from his Argentine youth club to French club Bordeaux.

"As EU law doesn't apply in the present (possible Liga MX case), the Bordeaux case is not directly applicable, but it may be the case that parallels could be drawn from this, given that Mexican clubs will no doubt assert that, without a further exception being granted, Article 19 would be in breach of the fundamental rights of Mexican nationals (to reside, take up employment in their country of heritage)," Couse and Cohen explained .

"By way of illustration, these clubs may argue that a dual national moving to his parental 'home country,' is a de facto nonfootballing reason under Article 19(2)(a), albeit that FIFA has, to date, required both parents to move with a Minor under this exception."

There was also the case of Paraguayan-Argentine national Juan Iturbe, whose move from Paraguayan club Cerro Porteno to Argentine first-division outfit Quilmes was blocked by FIFA when he was 17 on the basis that he was a minor. If Mexican clubs think being a dual national provides an obvious and easy exception, the Iturbe case seems to point to the contrary.

At the end of March, there was potentially important movement on the Article 19 issue when Spain's Sports Council ordered the Spanish federation to register 16-year-old Colombian Alejandro Urrea, who is a legal resident in Spain, but who couldn't be registered with Pozuelo because it would've violated Article 19. In essence, the Spanish federation, which was already fined by FIFA for registering minors at Barcelona, had refused to register Urrea, but was forced to when the governmental body intervened.

"It is like the Bosman ruling," Urrea's lawyer Jose Sanchez Parra said in quotes carried by AS. "One of the players from the pile complained about a rule that was nonsense. This changes everything; FIFA will have to rectify their rules."

Again, there may be a parallel with Mexico should the government step in, but for Mark Lugo, an American based in Barcelona and the founder of "Fair Play 4 Kids" (an organization attempting to pressure FIFA into changing Article 19), Article 19 as a whole is inconsistent with the realities of the modern world. Lugo says that many youngsters -- including his own son -- have struggled to register for organized amateur youth soccer teams due to widespread confusion and fear over Article 19.

"It seems like a couple of kids, but I have a list of 1,700 and something kids that aren't able to play because of Article 19," Lugo told ESPN FC. "The federations don't understand it."

The vast majority of those players that Lugo references are amateur players, but it is a replica of the situation Navarro and other Mexican-American youths find themselves in. American youngster Ben Lederman experienced something similar at Barcelona, when he was forced to leave La Masia to head back to the U.S. following the Catalan club's transfer ban.

"The media thinks it is just Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico, but it is happening at all levels," Lugo said.

The case of Mexican-Americans minors in the Liga MX appears to be isolated, but any definitive decision that might come further down the line could be significant to FIFA's rules governing minors in general. Meanwhile, youngsters like Navarro and those at Chivas are left in limbo.