There are few places young players would rather be educated than La Masia, Barcelona’s world-renowned youth academy. Imagine the environment: training every day with some of the world’s best coaches; facilities that are on another level; teammates comprised of the finest players in their age group; and every now and again, you get to snap a selfie with the likes of Neymar.
For one teenager from the United States, that idyllic environment is a reality. Ben Lederman, who will turn 15 later this year, swapped California for Catalonia in 2011, becoming the first American to be integrated into a youth setup that honed the skills of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta. Things have been going well, too. Reports from Barcelona’s staff have been glowing, and Lederman’s continued progressing through the U.S. youth setup since he began representing the U-14s when he was just 12.
But Lederman didn’t switch continents on his own. As with so many top prospects his age, his family relocated with him, in this case his parents and his older brother. In an interview with the New York Times, his mother, Tammy, admitted it was “a difficult decision and we were close to not doing it,” but ultimately, the Ledermans left behind family, friends and jobs to support Ben’s chance with one of the world’s biggest clubs.
Now, nearly four years later, the Ledermans’ dreams have hit a major hurdle, one they could not have foreseen when they touched down in Catalonia. Barça has broken FIFA’s regulations on signing foreign players under the age of 18. Following a lengthy appeal process which ended at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in December, the club has been banned from signing new players until Jan. 2016. Anticipating the ban, Barcelona spent over $150 million on players last summer, making it slightly surprising how galled the club seems by the recent the decision.
Josep Maria Bartomeu, the club’s president (pictured, above), touched on the ruling in a press conference on Wednesday, effectively calling the rule stupid. It was put in place to stop the trafficking of youngsters across countries, he explained, which is not what Barcelona is doing. He is not completely off base. There should be exceptions, changes even. However, the rule should have been challenged before it was broken.
Still, the club appears to feel victimized. It sees the sanction as a slight on the superb work done at La Masia. When FIFA first communicated the punishment last April, a huge banner was unveiled at Camp Nou during a match. “La Masia no es toca,” it read. Don’t touch La Masia. The punishment is not about the academy, though. It’s about the club’s failure to follow FIFA’s rules.
In the fallout, the focus has been almost entirely on Barcelona’s inability to sign players, but overlooked is the fact that, since the CAS rejected the appeal, several young international players have been left unable to play competitive football. Those signed illegally have been able to train, but they aren’t allowed take part in competitive games.
Lederman is among them. As things stand, he’ll be unable to pull on a blaugrana jersey until May 2018. Players from countries within the European Union can resume playing at 16 years old, but as Lederman’s from the United States, he will have to wait until his 18th birthday to be eligible.
The lack of competition will almost certainly affect his development. Within three years, Lederman had been expected to progress to the Juvenil A team, where he would have taken part in the UEFA Youth League — the tournament which catapulted current first team attacker Munir El Haddadi into the public eye last season. Lederman’s next step would be more modest, presumably into the B team. Sergi Samper, Sandro Ramírez and Adama Traoré are all currently at that stage of their development. All three have already tasted first team action.
Even if he then proved unable to crack the first team, Lederman’s soccer education would have guaranteed interest across Europe. The top leagues in England, Spain, Italy and beyond are full of La Masia graduates, from Bojan Krkić and Marc Muniesa at Stoke to Mauro Icardi at Inter, and from Gerard Deulofeu and Denis Suárez at Sevilla to Mexico’s Dos Santos brothers at Villarreal.
The chance at that progression could now be ripped away from Lederman. Instead, he’ll be forced to stagnate at a time when the likes of Messi — who would be in the same position if he was Lederman’s age now — Cesc Fàbregas and Gerard Piqué were beginning to be tested. He’ll still be able to take part in the rondos, he’ll still be provided with schooling and he’ll still be able to snap selfies with Neymar, but it’s hardly the same.
Lederman doesn’t stand alone. In total, there are still seven youngsters permitted only to train with Barça for the moment. Eight others are or have been unable to play.
For the family of Japanese prospect Takefusa Kubo, the wait may not be worth it. Barcelona-based newspaper Mundo Deportivo says the 13-year-old will return to Japan this month.
The Ledermans could follow suit and return to the U.S. Though that would not completely derail Ben’s career, it would still do damage. Hopes have already, admittedly prematurely, been pinned on him becoming the first American to play for the club’s first team. At this point, a departure from Barcelona will be a major blow.
For now, the Lederman family is waiting to see how the situation pans out. There remains hope the boys will, sooner or later, be allowed to resume playing duties. With so much speculation, though, they are unable to make any official comment.
In the interim, families like Ben’s remain in a sad limbo, forced to suffer after relocating across the globe for opportunity that meant so much. “I can’t describe his face,” Danny, Ben’s father, said of his son’s reaction to finding out Barca wanted him. “As a parent it was the kind of joy that makes you incredibly happy.”