Manchester City were drawn into the threat of a transfer window ban last night, as the French club Rennes declared that their signing of the prodigious young defender Jérémy Hélan had been unlawful and presented a more clear-cut case for reprisals from Fifa than Chelsea's move for Gaël Kakuta.
Hélan, now 17, who captained the French Under-16 side a year before Kakuta and is another product of the nation's famed INF Clairefontaine academy, was a player Manchester United wanted to buy in 2008 before the French club dug in their heels over his departure. City then moved in, to the indignation of the Ligue 1 side, who insist that Hélan's pre-contract agreement, which he signed as a 13-year-old, tied both the player and the club to a contract if he represented France at youth level.
Rennes' technical director, Pierre Dreossi, told The Independent that the case had been referred to Fifa and that Rennes were expecting punishment to be meted out. "Manchester City must now realise the consequences of their attitude in the Hélan case as it is even more illegal than Kakuta," he said.
City are understood to be adamant in their belief that they have not induced a breach of contract in a case which is further complicated by the fact that Hélan and Rennes are at odds, legally, over what he initially signed up to. Indeed, there is a slightly greater sense of optimism from the British end of this controversy, five days after the stunning announcement from Fifa that Chelsea are to be banned for two windows for their advances for Kakuta.
Chelsea will not discuss the ruling, ahead of receiving the detailed Fifa verdict – probably next week – but it has not gone unnoticed at Stamford Bridge that the French club Lens sanctioned an International Transfer Certificate (ITC) allowing Kakuta to leave for Chelsea – unlike Le Havre, who have refused one for Manchester United's Paul Pogba. Chelsea are beginning to consider their legal options and are likely to argue that European employment law, allowing freedom of movement, should supersede any Fifa judgement based on pre-contract agreements signed by French clubs.
After Frank Lampard became the first Chelsea player to comment on the transfer ban imposed on the club, claiming the Kakuta affair would bring the Chelsea squad closer together, United also hinted that if Le Havre repeat claims of inducements having been offered to Pogba, his father and mother, they will be taken to court.
Rennes believe that they have the strongest case yet, though. French sources suggest that Hélan met Sir Alex Ferguson at United's Carrington training centre and was keen to leave, accepting a period of months without football just like the one his compatriot Pogba is experiencing, while United waited for an ITC. The defender was also removed from a role in Gérard Houllier's national youth sides as a result of his perceived breach of contract.
Though Hélan's mother indicated at that time she was happy with the idea of her son making the move – "I don't see the difference between him being at Rennes or in Manchester as long as he is in a good environment," she said – United began to cool on the idea. It was then that City moved in – without any contact according to Dreossi, who insisted yesterday that the ITC provided by the French football federation for the player was delivered in error. The player arrived at City in February.
"We have referred this to Fifa," Dreossi said. "For us it was strange to have no discussion from City and now, in the week after the Fifa declaration on Chelsea, I would hope that it will be the same thing for Manchester City. Kakuta signed up for just a possibility of a full contract. For Hélan there was definitely one there, under the terms of the pre-contract agreement, because he had played for his country. Manchester United said it was not possible to negotiate with us but for City now this is dangerous, though we are not expecting a decision from Fifa for perhaps several years."
City are expected to reject all such allegations about a player who was described as the "next Patrice Evra" when United were looking to sign him. But the fact that a side feted for their home-grown players have been drawn into the affair underlines how assiduous all of the would-be elite sides have been in scouring the continent.
Lampard said of the controversy: "A lot of things have happened to me with England and Chelsea and whenever it's backs to the wall, for whatever reason that might be, it brings a togetherness. It's something that is out of the players' control anyway so all we can do now is make it a positive."
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