Chelsea was banned Friday from signing players until after the 2019-20 season, the latest European power punished by FIFA for flouting rules protecting young talent from premature international moves.
FIFA punished the London club owned by Russian billionaire owner Roman Abramovich for violations of rules regarding the protection of minors that involve 29 players, Chelsea said. FIFA rules provide specific circumstances in which clubs may sign players under 18.
Like Barcelona in 2015 and Atletico Madrid throughout 2017, Chelsea was barred from signing new players for two transfer windows, covering this summer and January 2020. Chelsea already has announced plans to appeal the ban and a fine of 600,000 Swiss francs ($600,000).
The Football Association, which has oversight of transfers in England, was fined 510,000 Swiss francs ($510,000) by FIFA and given six months to "address the situation concerning the international transfer and first registration of minors in football," FIFA said.
In some cases, players under the age of 18 spent time on trial at Chelsea but were not registered with the football authorities, people with knowledge of the case told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss specifics of the case.
Part of the FIFA case focused on players exceeding what is considered a reasonable amount of time to be considered a trialist and making return trips to Chelsea, one of the people said.
The punishment is the latest blow for Chelsea, which has dropped to sixth in the Premier League and was knocked out of the FA Cup by Manchester United on Monday. Abramovich, who has transformed the London club since his 2003 takeover, has been unable to travel to Britain since his visa expired at the end of last April.
International transfers involving players under 18 are prohibited unless their families had already moved to the new country for non-soccer reasons or they are close to the border of another nation. There is an exception for clubs within the European Union and European Economic Community that allows the transfer of 16- to 18-year-old players provided conditions are met on education and living conditions.
It was first reported three years ago that Burkina Faso attacker Bertrand Traore played for Chelsea’s under-18 team in 2011 while still 16. Traore made only 16 appearances for Chelsea’s first team before being sold to Lyon in 2017.
FIFA did not detail the specifics of the case against Chelsea, but it said the club also entered into agreements that "allowed it to influence other clubs in transfer-related matters."
Chelsea said it was initially charged over 92 players but no breach was found by FIFA in relation to 63 of them.
"The club is extremely disappointed that FIFA has not accepted the club’s submissions in relation to the remaining 29 players," Chelsea said in a statement. "Chelsea FC acted in accordance with the relevant regulations and will shortly be submitting its appeal to FIFA."
The FA is challenging its fine and said it already had "raised some concerns with FIFA regarding its disciplinary processes."
"We will however continue to work with FIFA and Chelsea in a constructive manner to address the issues which are raised by this case," the FA said in a statement.
Both the FA and Chelsea could ultimately challenge any FIFA appeal ruling at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. When Real Madrid received a similar ban in 2016, the sanction was reduced to one transfer window by CAS. But Atletico Madrid failed to cut its punishment covering two transfer windows.
Chelsea already finalized one transfer knowing the FIFA verdict was pending. Christian Pulisic was signed for 64 million euros ($73 million) in January and the 20-year-old winger from Hershey, Pennsylvania, was immediately loaned back to Borussia Dortmund for the rest of this season. The German club didn’t have to pay a fee.
The transfer ban does not prevent Chelsea from selling players. Winger Eden Hazard, who has been linked with a move to Real Madrid, has indicated he could look for a transfer at the end of season but he is under contract at Stamford Bridge until the end of the 2019-20 season.
Although Chelsea has a strong academy, winning the FA Youth Cup for the last five years, players struggle to graduate to the first team. Chelsea currently has 42 players out on loan to other teams.