FIFA Demobilizes Chelsea’s Loan Army
The Fédération Internationale de Football Association, FIFA for short, just announced a limit on how many players each club can send on loan. Next season, each club is only allowed to have eight players over the age of 21 on loan, and the season after they're only permitted to have six. Before analyzing the pros and cons of this new rule, I should first define what a loan deal is in soccer.
A major staple of the transfer market in soccer is the loan system. A loan in soccer is when one player is temporarily sold or 'loaned' to another club for a set amount of time and, potentially, a fee. Usually, these loans last 6 months, one year, or two years. The clubs generally split the player’s wages, but it truly varies from case to case. For the purpose of this article and understanding the implications of FIFA's announcement, we don't need to get into those specifics.
The most common use of the loan system is when big clubs offer young, raw talent to smaller clubs who will help develop them. Usually players who go on loan range in age from as young as 16 or 17 to as old as 25 years, before the club gives up on their potential. Because the big teams like Chelsea, don't have room in their starting lineup for the young players, they send them on loan to lower-tier leagues and teams so that the players can get the much-needed experience by playing in the games.
So far, the loan system probably seems like a pretty good idea and you may be asking yourself why FIFA would want to regulate it. The answer to that question comes from how these bigger clubs use and abuse the loan system. Big clubs tend to buy up all of the young talent in the world and then send them on loan across different leagues. Not only does this make it harder for less financially-backed clubs to compete, but it also allows these big clubs to control the younger players’ futures and usually leads to clubs selling these loan players off for a profit in the future. This only exacerbates big clubs’ dominance over the transfer market. For instance, last season Chelsea had over 41 players out on loan. This season that number has dropped to 27, but it is still a concerning statistic. Chelsea has been put in the spotlight for this issue and is seen as the biggest culprit when it comes to exploiting the loan system. The following video from 2016 does a pretty good job of explaining Chelsea's "loan army" and why Chelsea does it.
This hoarding of players is the exact reason why FIFA is looking to crack down on the loan system. However, I have my doubts as to whether or not Chelsea is the right target for the allegations or if FIFA picked the right solution to the problem.
First I'll discuss Chelsea specifically. I, probably the biggest Chelsea fan at Cornell, know far too well the difficulty loan players have coming back and breaking into the starting eleven at Chelsea. Up until this year, very few players at Chelsea had successfully done it. However, this past season with Chelsea legend, Frank Lampard, as manager, Chelsea has begun to incorporate loanees into the team regularly and has grown to rely on these players. This new attitude towards developing youth is partially due to Frank Lampard's history as a player with Chelsea and his personal goal to give younger players chances in the first team. On the other hand, it can also be attributed to the transfer ban FIFA gave to Chelsea. Basically, Chelsea are not allowed to buy any players until next summer due to FIFA regulations. As a result, Chelsea can only use the players that they have under contract, forcing them to look to younger options, who were previously out on loan, for their starting lineup. Players like American attacker Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount, Reece James, Tammy Abraham, Michy Batshuayi, Kurt Zouma, and Fikayo Tomori, who were all part of the 41 loanees from last season, have all started for Chelsea's first team in the past two games and have all scored or assisted for the Blues this season.
Additionally, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andreas Christensen are both starters on Chelsea's current roster after spending multiple seasons on loan away from Chelsea's home at Stamford Bridge. Mateo Kovacic played on loan from Real Madrid for Chelsea last season and started in almost every fixture, showing that Chelsea is not just an exporting giant in the loan market. Current trends show that Chelsea is moving in the right direction with their loans, and are actually retaining the majority of their players. Furthermore, some of the best players in the world like Kevin De Bruyne, Mohammed Salah, Romelu Lukaku, and many others all carved their route to superstardom through the Chelsea loan system. As a result, in my opinion, Chelsea should not be the club at the forefront of FIFA’s allegations, but rather should be seen as an example of good and ethical loan business.
Now I’ll discuss FIFA’s solution as a whole. In my eyes, FIFA is essentially trying to fix a broken arm with a bandaid. What I mean by this is that FIFA is simply assuming that a basic solution will fix a much deeper, underlying problem with soccer as a whole. With this new rule, FIFA is laying their cards on the table and assuming that these big clubs will react accordingly by no longer buying up young talent. However, that is extremely unlikely. Rather than buying up the young talent and sending them out on loan to see how they do, now teams will just buy up the young talent and leave them to rot on their bench or in their reserve team so that no other teams can have them. If a player ends up being a star and is worthy of the first team, the clubs, of course, will add them to their roster, but otherwise, the players will rarely if ever see the football pitch again. This may seem like a financially irresponsible decision for these big clubs, and it is, however, the clubs we’re talking about have billionaire owners who won’t bat an eye if a couple million dollars get lost in their transfers each year. As a result, I believe that this rule at best will do little to change the power dynamic of soccer, and will most likely only give more power to the teams who already dominate the game, while simultaneously removing one of the only ways that young talent can get noticed.
For now, all we can do is wait and see how clubs like Chelsea react to the new regulations. Hopefully, I end up being wrong and the new rule succeeds in demobilizing Chelsea’s loan army.