“A bolt of lightning:” How Chelsea lured away a teenage footballing prodigy

By John Leicester, AP
Friday, September 4, 2009

Chelsea ignored warnings about poaching talent

PARIS — When Chelsea dangled its wealth and star players in front of him, Gael Kakuta did what any teenage footballing prodigy from a modest background might do: He lost his head. The contract he had signed with the French club that nurtured him from age 8 was cast aside. For that, Kakuta and Chelsea are now paying a very heavy price.

“He cracked, as one would crack for a pretty woman,” says Eric Assadourian, who coached the preciously talented and swift Kakuta before Chelsea snapped him up at age 16. “He fell — quote, unquote — in love. It was a bolt of lightning.”

“Meeting (Michael) Ballack, (Didier) Drogba and the others, it was his dream,” adds Assadourian, referring to Chelsea’s star-studded lineup. “It was very tough to hold him back.”

In punishing Chelsea for allegedly luring the youngster away from French side Lens, football’s guardians at governing body FIFA are sending a powerful warning to the giants of the game in England and elsewhere that their wealth and clout doesn’t give them license to do whatever they please.

However harshly Chelsea feels it has been treated, the more important principle is that teams — from the grass roots up — must be adequately rewarded for the time and money they invest in rearing football’s players of tomorrow. Lens, a modest first-division club in France’s industrial north, spends richly on training young players and can’t afford to see them simply walk out the door.

Who, especially in these cash-strapped times, is going to fund football’s future if wealthy poachers can simply swoop in and entice away young talents? In that sense, the ruling Thursday from FIFA’s Dispute Resolution Chamber should work for football’s greater good.

The global game’s administrators have long been promising action to stamp out the cross-border trafficking of young players from places like Africa that have talent but no money to those that have money but not enough homegrown players to keep them at the lucrative peak of football’s pyramid. The abuses — youngsters falling prey to unscrupulous middlemen, even young Africans abandoned on Europe’s streets when promises of a place in a club proved worthless — are a stain on the game.

By banning Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea from signing any new players before January 2011, FIFA is making an example of a major power in football and giving real teeth to its drive to better regulate transfers involving young players. Kakuta and Chelsea must also pay Lens $1.12 million in compensation and Kakuta is banned from playing for four months.

The London club is furious about being made to look so bad and it is preparing “the strongest appeal possible” against “this extraordinarily arbitrary decision.”

Chelsea can’t say that it wasn’t warned.

Francis Collado, then a general manager at Lens, traveled to London in early 2008 to try to get compensation from Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon and Frank Arnesen, a former Danish international with a track record of finding young players brought in to save Abramovich millions in the transfer market.

Collado says he warned the pair that Chelsea could be severely punished for encouraging Kakuta to break his contract.

He says Kenyon offered Lens a paltry sum — Collado wouldn’t say how much but called it “ridiculous” — in compensation.

“They believed that FIFA would never apply the rules to a club like Chelsea,” Collado told The Associated Press. “That is where they made a mistake.”

He says Lens pours $8.5 million into youth training annually — an investment that can only be recouped by getting fair value for talents like Kakuta, who “come along once every two or three years.”

Assadourian, a Lens youth coach was worked with Kakuta for a year before he left, says the youngster felt he was stagnating at the French club, which won its only Division One title in 1998. The chance to join English powerhouses such as Chelsea holds huge appeal for youngsters like Kakuta, a player who was far more interested in his footballing future than material wealth, Assadourian says.

But Collado alleges Chelsea offered Kakuta “very important amounts” of money, too, and started contacts with him before he turned 16 in June of 2007. Collado says the youngster’s uncle, a bar owner, played a major part in getting Kakuta to break the contractual agreement he had signed with Lens at age 14 and move to London.

Collado expects the FIFA ruling will now better protect sides like Lens. “This is going to send a big warning,” he said. “All clubs will think twice now.”

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester at ap.org.

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