The football world awoke this morning to the news that Barcelona, Catalan superpower and self-appointed guardians of football's soul, have been banned by FIFA from making any transfers for the next two transfer windows.
Why have Barcelona received a transfer ban?
According to FIFA's statement:
FC Barcelona were found to have violated several provisions concerning the international transfer and first registration of non-Spanish minors with the club, as well as other relevant regulations with regard to the registration and participation of certain players in national competitions. The investigations concerned several minor players who were registered and participated in competitions with the club over various periods between 2009 and 2013.
The violations relate to Article 19 of the Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players. This article prohibits the international transfer of players younger than age of 18 except in three specific circumstances: where the player's family are moving country for non-footballing reasons; where the player resides 100km or less from his new club; and where the transfer occurs within the European Union.
FIFA haven't identified the specific players, or provided any more information on the nature of the violations. A report in The Guardian, however, has mentioned recent youth recruits from South Korea and Cameroon. Barcelona also have been fined 450,000 Swiss francs.
What about the RFEF?
The RFEF — the Spanish Football Federation — has been fined 500,000 Swiss francs by FIFA and given a year to "regularise their regulatory framework and existing system concerning the transfer of minors", for charges relating to the same players, though it is not clear if this relates to a failure on the part of the Federation to adequately oversee Barcelona, or for distinct violations relating to the same players. Both the Federation and the club have been issued with a reprimand.
Will they appeal?
Though the club haven't announced anything yet, almost certainly. They have a 90-day period in which to respond to the sanctions, and it would be a huge surprise if they chose not to. Not only do they have significant transfer, there is also the question of reputational damage. This latest farrago follows the recent revelations concerning Neymar's transfer from Brazil; mes que un club is sounding pretty hollow these days. Any appeal would be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, based in Lausanne, Switzerland.
It has been suggested that this resembles a similar ban handed to Chelsea, who in 2010 were banned for two transfer windows after FIFA identified irregularities in the transfer of Gael Kakuta from Lens. In that case, Chelsea were able to successfully appeal, after reaching a settlement with the French club; as the allegations against Barcelona relate to ten individual players and multiple apparent breaches, this might not be a relevant precedent. French side Nantes, meanwhile, recently failed to have a ban overturned.
If the appeal fails, what will happen?
If the ban is allowed to stand, then the exact consequences are unclear. Any side hoping to sign a player from Barcelona will presumably have to forget it. And Barcelona, while still in possession of one of the planet's stronger squads, had a considerable and important shopping list for the summer.
One particular area of concern is at centre-back: captain Carles Puyol has announced that he is leaving the club, and the current options to play alongside Gerard Pique are shaky youngster Marc Bartra, midfielder-by-trade Javier Mascherano, and shambling punchline Alex Song. In midfield, Xavi will presumably have to drag another season out of his aching legs. And in goal, should recently injured goalkeeper Victor Valdes stick by his promise to leave the club, then things might get very entertaining indeed. Jose Pinto, your time is now.
Hang on, haven't Barcelona already bought another goalkeeper?
Yes. Sort of. Barcelona already have two transfers in place for the coming summer: 21-year-old German goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen from Borussia Mönchengladbach, and 17-year-old Croatian attacker Alen Halilović from Dinamo Zagreb. Nobody seems sure whether these deals would collapse, would go through but necessitate the players spending a season elsewhere on loan, or would be waved through as having already taken place. Spanish newspaper AS are of the view that ter Stegen would not be able to register for the club, but ter Stegen's agent has indicated that he is calm about the situation.
Are there any other clubs involved?
As far as FIFA have announced, no. However, the acquisition of under-18 players from around the globe is a relatively widespread practice for a number of clubs, particularly those with large reputations, deep pockets and attractive reputations. In particular, if the Spanish Federation have been failing in their enforcement of the regulations, it would be very surprising if Barcelona were the only club to have attempted to benefit from such laxity. So we wait and see.