By way of introduction to the issue: Some years ago the League introduced certain rules, which created differences between the premier and first divisions. The main one – which I want to discuss here – was the so-called under 23 Rule. You will find that rule set out in Rule 31 of the League Rules and see that what it does is to require of first division clubs that they include in their starting line-up for each match a minimum of five under 23 players. As we understood it the rule was introduced at a time when certain sponsors appear to have indicated that they would sponsor the first division if it clearly contributed to youth development in some way.
The Under 23 rule was the way in which this contribution was to be shown – I think – but for whatever reason sponsorship could not be obtained through the rule has remained. The problems that the rule has caused include the fact that first division clubs cannot afford – and many had to dismiss – older players who remain in the prime of their careers but are older than 23. These players are lost to the game; they are no longer able to support their families; and this is the result, we believe, of a rule that does not have any real prospect of achieving its aim anyway. We believe that all the rule does in fact is to cause older (and let’s be honest a 24 year old player is not “old”) players to be unfairly discriminated against and refused an opportunity to continue a career which can contribute to their future and that of their dependents in circumstances in which there is no longer a clear reason for having such a rule. Short we say that in professional football, players have a right to play if they are good enough no matter their age and that a rule like this is unfairly discriminating against older players. It also forces clubs to turn away players they would otherwise offer jobs to and even dismiss players based on age, which causes litigation and damage to the industry as a whole. The thinking behind a rule such as this relates to the difficulties we are experiencing as a country in producing young talent. That is clearly an important matter and we are not suggesting it is not. But, youth development is actually, we think, a much wider problem countrywide and not one that a rule like this really addresses.
What do we mean, what should be done about youth development? Well: The development of young players should be looked at and be implemented holistically. To this end there needs to be a youth development programme that is supported by the League, SAFA and government, and aims at the youngest players who come into the game at the grassroots. A comprehensive development programme like this will address the real problems, find ways to actually train and develop rather than simply apply quotas and will create greater opportunities to promote the game and talent identification and development on a wide scale at the correct level being – the youngest amateur players.
We certainly do need to improve the quality of administration at amateur level because the failings in that area have led to amateur clubs viewing youth development as nothing more than a money making exercise where clearances and people are bought and sold but it is this grassroots level that has to be improved upon if we are to see real development and flow through from amateur to professional football. Improvements at amateur level are very difficult unfortunately until SAFA and its capacity are significantly improved and that is an issue we need to all try to contribute to. But making this a professional football problem actually takes emphasis away from that area and may harm, rather than help, development. You come from a rugby background and we think will agree that there development mainly takes place at schools and the lower levels and not at the highest levels of the game. We have to have a proper development process at the national youth level and if SAFA cannot be fixed at every level at very least the administration of junior levels can improve.
Improved amateur structures would then be able to feed professional teams – and clear rules and policies dealing with youth training and development compensation could reward those amateur clubs who truly train and develop and so also encourage sponsors to support those who do so – and remove the need for a rule at professional level which does not actually address the wider aims of youth development at all (at least in our view).
The professional teams that do train and develop do so despite, rather than because of, the under 23 rule. They want to develop the players of the future for their clubs and do not aim only at producing players who can only play until they are 23. Age cheating has been rife in this country and age related rules in professional football will increase the incentive to cheat too and is something to be avoided in our view unless there is a clear reason justifying a rule which on the face of it is unfairly discriminatory and basically forces teams in the professional ranks to apply quotas without a clear goal in mind.
For us a rule like this is unconstitutional because it is not rational; it unfairly discriminates between players on the basis of age; and it restricts certainly some denies deserving players of their constitutional right to engage in economic activity by way of the career of their choice. Any unconstitutional rule must be justified in terms of the constitution and we do not see how this rule is justified in fact. We believe rather that this is no more than a quota that is also unsustainable because it is only applicable in the first division where it almost creates a special anti-competitive “class” of young players who are unlikely to go on to the premier division because, if they were good enough they would probably be there already. So it is almost a false class of player who will not go on with a career at the highest level but takes up places others might fill if they were not a year older.
The entire issue of youth development should be approached in a programmatic manner and the current system is not sustainable, is discriminatory and does not have any positive long-term effects on the development of football in the country. Stakeholders and role players need to come together to develop a sustainable and comprehensive plan for the development of football in this country and wherever we can help there we will. But the current system is clearly not good enough to address the very real problems and concerns we all have when it comes to development and for that reason we believe most clubs would agree with us that it should go. We raise the issue because clubs may feel that they will be seen as breaking ranks about something they voted for. Perhaps if we raise it clubs will look at it again and if they do we think they will agree with us that it should go.
Our recommendation and aim, It is our submission that this rule should be scrapped with immediate effect in its current form and we will raise it at our meeting. If there is any opportunity to seek the views of decision makers in the game before our meeting we would welcome your doing that because that may make our discussions more meaningful and who knows this may be a topical item for clubs to consider at the next meeting of the board of governors. If there are good reasons for the rule and some clubs would prefer to keep it we would be very interested to hear these so that we can debate the matter.
Feel free to contact me should you need more clarity. For and on behalf of SAFPU and the National Office Bearers collectively
Yours in Sports, Thulaganyo Gaoshubelwe General Secretary SAFPU +27 82 520 1434