Vultures swarmed around teenage prey at 2003 Under 17 World Cup

Ugly squabbles over "ownership" of young players in 2003 revealed ugly side of the business, writes Ian Hawkey.

Several Premier League clubs recruited Spanish midfielder Cesc Fabregas after the 2003 Under 17 World Cup but he eventually returned back to Barcelona. Lluis Gene/ AFP
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Talent spotters, scouts and agents poured into Finland for the 2003 Fifa Under 17 World Cup.

Like commodity speculators in any marketplace, they wanted to put down deposits on what they hoped would be rewarding long-term investments.

Among the deals brokered that summer for footballers not yet old enough to vote or take a driving test were a few which would make headlines in the future.

As a young midfielder from the coast of Catalonia emerged as the tournament’s leading scorer, the new president of Barcelona, Joan Laporta, was angry. He felt cross that a predecessor in his office had allowed Cesc Fabregas, nurtured at La Masia, Barca’s academy, to slip away from the club. Alerted to his talent and to the fact Fabregas was not bound by a professional contract to Barcelona, the English club Arsenal had recruited him.

Johan Cruyff, the former Barcelona coach, called the Premier League club’s strategy “underhand”. They paid a nominal fee to Barca at the time, a fraction of the nearly €40 million (Dh198.7m) Barcelona would hand over to Arsenal to bring Fabregas back to Camp Nou in 2011, when he was 24.

Meanwhile, Scandinavian observers at Finland 2003 were among those impressed by the Nigerian midfielder John Obi Mikel.

The Norwegian club Lyn Oslo would give him a contract him soon after the tournament and he was playing for them by 2004.

The following year they announced they had agreed to sell Mikel to Manchester United. but Mikel’s representatives said he had a deal in place to join Chelsea.

The row over his ownership became explosive. Carlos Queiroz, United’s assistant manager then, talked of the player having been “kidnapped”.

Chelsea had been scouting Mikel in Finland and he trained with the club the following summer. But United were determined they had a deal with Lyn.

A settlement was reached in which United were paid £12 million and Lyn £4m by Chelsea so Mikel could join the Stamford Bridge team, which he has now been at for seven years.

But the tawdry story was not over. A Lyn director, Morgan Andersen, was later convicted in a Norwegian court of fraud and making false accusations and given a one-year suspended sentence for his part in the transfer saga.

The complicated “ownership” of the promising Argentine Alejandro Faurlin, a bronze-medallist in Finland, would also put him in an awkward position later in his career.

As is commonplace in South America, an investment company took out a share in his registration. The company retained that stake when, in 2009, after a career at various clubs in Argentina, Faurlin left Instituto de Cordoba to join Queens Park Rangers.

The English Football Association, unlike many national governing bodies, prohibit third-party ownership of players, and investigated the Faurlin case.

QPR risked a points deduction for having fielded a third-party-owned player during the season, which ended with their promotion to the Premier League in 2011.

In the end, the club’s punishment for breaching regulations was limited to a fine.