Play Football in Spain? Our FIFA International Transfer Story

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Want to play football in Spain? Do your kids? My son has played on two 3rd-Division teams here in Valencia, but not before his mom and I went through months of paperwork and running around.

Play Football in Spain? Our Story of FIFA International Transfer

For the latest (and final?) component of our Spain Story series, let me break it down for you. As you might have read in previous posts, it has been a long haul to get us here:

As I said before, this is only our set of experiences. It may be radically different from yours. I am sharing our story simply to help someone considering a similar move.

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Play Football in Spain? Our FIFA International Transfer Story

Our son loves playing football (soccer). Since he was five, he has played in every country he’s lived in: Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and Malaysia. It’s how he connects with kids around the world. Always has been. When we told the kids we were considering a move to Spain, you know the boy was happy since football is close to a religion there. He wanted to play football in Spain. Hell, he wanted to play football anywhere people took it seriously.

I did not expect it would be this challenging to play football in Spain. Wait a minute, let me back up. Playing football in Spain isn’t the problem. You can probably find a pick-up game if you look hard enough. Playing for a FIFA-affiliated team, however…well, this was a lot more work. Which teams are FIFA-affiliated teams? All of them.

That’s right folks: another maddening back-and-forth drama for the family that always does it the hard way. Funnily enough, I think the visa and residency might have been less time consuming than FIFA.

To be clear: if you want to play football in Spain for a FIFA team, whether it be professional, youth league or somewhere in between like third division for my boy, you still have to try out or be recruited. Our boy tried out and made the team. He’s good enough for that, but if he was some footy phenomenon then someone would have handled all of this for us, wouldn’t they?

Play Football in Spain? How Hard Can it Be?

Play Football in Spain? Our Story of FIFA International Transfer

Our boy was very excited when he realized we were moving to Spain. To play football in Spain or anywhere in Europe has been a dream for him for years. After we landed, however, we had to register ourselves, find schools and housing, get the internet and other utilities hooked up, open the bank account and more. Finding a football club for the boy was lower on the list of priorities.

As far as football connections, we didn’t have any, really. One coach who had seen the boy play in Malaysia told us he could join his club in the Canary Islands, but we’d already lived on enough small islands (Penang, Taiwan, etc) and wanted to live in mainland Spain.

Then there was our Spanish friend mentioned in an earlier post. Through his father, we were able to make enough connections to try out for a few teams. First was the youth league of Levante, an actual La Liga team based in Valencia. When he didn’t make the cut there, we went to third-division and he found a team.

Welcoming Club Atmosphere

He had practice twice a week in a nearby suburb of Valencia. On Mondays and Wednesdays, he would take a bus and then a train to the practice pitch. This took about an hour each way. Kind of a drag, especially since he now had tests to study for every week.  However, he got to play football in Spain, so it didn’t matter – he was happy.

His teammates, their parents, and the coaches were all very welcoming to us, which was the opposite of what we were told to expect. Perhaps the cold treatment and cut-throated competition happen only at elite-level teams like Barcelona FC or Real Madrid. Maybe it has to do with the kids being still under 13. Whatever the reason, his first year playing football in Spain was great, and his level of both Spanish and of the sport grew because of it.

The FIFA Blockade for Playing Football in Spain

Play Football in Spain? Our Story of FIFA International Transfer

However, FIFA – the organization that manages much of the world’s organized football – was not so accommodating. I started my son’s application process in September 2015 as soon as he decided which team to join.

He wasn’t approved to play until May 2016. 

Your Papers, Please

If you are not a registered player, you can not play in any official games. A week passes after we submitted the application, and then we hear from FIFA that they need our boy’s NIE (Número de Identificación de Extranjero, Foreigner’s ID number). I went in the office with his passport that has his NIE on the VISA. Just in case, I brought his registration certificate (empadronamiento) issued by the city hall.

The staff asks for his ID card (TIE or Tarjeta de identidad de extranjero), but we don’t have it yet. No card, no registration. Our appointment date to apply for the ID card was set in November. It was only September!

The guy I dealt with at the Football Federation offices was nice and patient. He understood our situation, but he simply couldn’t process the application without the card. FIFA rules.

(Another) Lesson in Patience

Our boy could practice with his team, and he could play in unofficial games and other friendly matches. However, he was not allowed to play in any proper games on the schedule until this was sorted.

We encouraged him to work hard in practice and show that he would be worth the wait. Sooner or later, he would play, and he wanted the coach to be glad he waited on him.

Perpetually Pending

Fast-forward to early December and we finally have our ID cards. The next morning I went straight to Valencia’s FIFA offices and handed everything in. Whew! If things went well, I thought, the boy should be able to play by January.

Just before Christmas, the team had a holiday party. Many of the parents asked us when the kid could start playing. All we could say was “We’re still waiting to hear from FIFA.” They were almost as irritated as we were, not because our kid was some superstar player, but more at how he was being held back. The dads spoke of it like it was a crime against childhood.

Another month passes, and I contact the FIFA offices. The reply? Our application is still pendiente (pending) at the FIFA Madrid office.

Pendiente….I hate this word now. I would hear it for another four months.

The Omnipotent FIFA

Play Football in Spain? Our Story of FIFA International Transfer

The original application form asks if the applicant has played for any FIFA team before. We said no. Sure, he had played in many places but these were mostly neighborhood teams, we thought. Surely nothing connected to FIFA.

We were wrong. FIFA had our son’s exact name (not the most common) in their records somewhere. They didn’t tell us where. What they did tell us, was that our forms were now rendered invalid and we had to start over.

We still don’t know what team they were talking about. Was it the Etchujima Rainbows, the local team he played for in our Tokyo neighborhood until he was 10? Was it the one-week soccer camp run by FC Barcelona that he attended 4 years ago? We have no idea, and they never told us.

So now we’re back at square one. We had to reapply.

Bad Timing? A Brief History of FIFA & Non-Spanish Youth

Before I continue, here’s a little background that may have some relevance to our story.

In 2009, FIFA created a new regulation. Article 19 bans international transfer for players under 18. It was set in order to stop exploiting young talent. For example, let’s say a sleazy agent brings a talented kid to a pro-football country, but then the kid doesn’t get recruited. This agent could abandon the kid and his family, essentially making them illegal immigrants with no support.

FIFA now states that a team can accept a youth international transfer only if the kid happened to be in Spain already, and for reasons unrelated to football. That was us, of course, but the timing couldn’t have been worse for our application.

In 2014, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (Real Federación Española de Fútbol, RFEF) and FC Barcelona were accused of violating this regulation between 2009 and 2013. They were fined big-time.

After this, FIFA made some changes to the rule and enforced them from March of 2015. The new rule? If you are over 10 years old and you want to play in a different country, you now need to submit a certificate of approval from the previous team you played in.


FIFA had some record of our boy playing for a FIFA-registered club. Now they needed a certification from that club. We had no idea what to do and asked which club we should contact. No answer.

We waited a month. It’s February now — six months since we started the process. I keep showing up at the FIFA offices to ask what is happening. To ask what I can do. The answer is always the same — pendiente — and he has no idea why.

FIFA, Meet Murphy

This pattern continues for another two months. Then one day, I received an email from FIFA Valencia. He’s approved! Finally! I have no idea what happened to the certificate they wanted. Did they contact the team in question? Was there a mistake? I don’t know and I don’t care. He was finally approved to play.

It’s been nine months, but at last, he can play.

Or can he? You see, as Murphy’s Law would have it, there’s another FIFA rule: you cannot join a team in the final month of the season. Guess what? It was the final month of the season.

The Bright Side of Playing Football in Spain

Play Football in Spain? Our Story of FIFA International Transfer

Okay, here I am telling another maddening story of paperwork and holding patterns. Such has been our experience thus far. But hey, if you want to live in Spain, and you want to play football in Spain, this may be what you have to go through. For your sake, I hope not.

Let’s look at the bright side, however. In spite of all the runaround, our boy was able to walk right into Spain and start training with local kids twice a week. He made friends on the team quickly and picked up Spanish that much faster because of it. We had yet another lesson in patience, and the boy now has a new set of friends and teammates closer to our neighborhood. I’m gonna call that a hard-fought win.

Epilogue: To Play Football in Spain at Last

So all of the above was our first-year experience on how to play football in Spain. At the time of writing, the new season has started. The boy tried out for a new team and made it. He really liked his old team, but the hour-long commute (2 hours a night, twice a week) was a strain. His new team is the same level but a 30-minute walk away — or less by bus.

So far the paperwork seems to be finished and he’s ready to play. At last!

Have you dealt with FIFA international transfer?

We never imagined it would be this hard to play football in Spain. We like living in Spain enough that we plan to apply for a residency extension. Our son is still dying to play football in Spain and is itching to get on the field.

Have you gone through this process with FIFA? What is your story? Any suggestions for future players? I never want to go through this again, but if we continue this traveling life, we might need to be prepared for it.

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Play Football in Spain? Our Story of FIFA International Transfer
Image credits: #1, #3, #4


  1. Question, how did you get past the issue of a “Premiso de Trabajo”? We are in Barcelona for non-soccer reasons, as my wife has had to travel to England for one week out of every month and it just got to be too much. However, we preferred to live in Spain than live in England for the ability to learn the language etc. The FCF, the Catalunyan Federation, is requesting a Permiso de trabajo and we are here on a non-lucrative visa, which of course means we cannot work for a Spanish employer. In our case this is for our daughter who is only 9 so we thought it would not be much of an issue, but she hasn’t been cleared yet.

    Appreciate any thoughts on this

    • Hi Keith. We were never asked for “Premiso de Trabajo” for FIFA. Plenty of documentation for our visa, but for soccer that wasn’t an issue for us, and it *still* took nearly a year, so be patient, and please update us on how it goes!

    • Keith, my daughter is 10 and we are from the us. Bought a place in Barcelona late last year and are planning to move on a Non-lucrative visa this summer. My daughter has been playing competitive soccer and is really concerned that she can still play in Spain. Trying to figure out how to do this. You are having problems with your 9 year old?? Will there be an issue age wise with a 10 year old or 11 or older. Freaking out now. She also plays basketball so something else to figure out. Not to mention the school aspect.

      • Nikko: I don’t think the age of the child is the problem. Our son was 13 y/o when we moved to Spain. But, to confirm, you’re moving to Spain for reasons *not-related to football (soccer)* after all, right? As long as paperwork shows that you are in Spain for the reason not-related to football (to live or to travel/learn Spanish, etc), your daughter should be fine. However, keep in mind that it may take a long time. It took us almost 8 months to get our son cleared. Our son tried out and made a team, but during that FIFA process he could only practice with the team. He was not able to play in any official game since he was not registered as an official team member until all paperwork was cleared. By the time he was cleared and everything was set, the season was over. Extremely frustrating. Prepare yourself for this, but let us know how it goes!

  2. Im 18 years old and planing to go im spain and do some football trials there. i have a canadian passports and you think its will be difficult for me to play there because of my nationality?

    • Good luck on the trials, Jimmy! I’m going to assume that you’ve read what I’ve written about getting my son through the FIFA maze. And I’m afraid that I don’t really know about the difficulty for Canadian nor for anyone older than 18. All I know about is getting my boy through while we were legal residents of Spain. It’s probably possible (depending on your skill level of course) but FIFA has its own “Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players” and it can be found on FIFA site. I assume that you will need a lot of paperwork tho. It is best to talk to your current team or the team you want to play in Spain. Best of luck!

  3. Hello, thanks for the time and information you have provided. I live in Australia and was planning to send my son to Valencia or Saville to play football. He is 16 years old and turning 17 in about 2 months. My plan was to rent a small unit for 6-12 months. What are the people like and how hard would it be for him to live there? He does not speak Spanish. Anything you think we should be concerned about or need to be aware off? From Australia you do not need a visa which makes things a little easier and he also has a U.K. Passport.

    • Things will definitely be easier if you have UK passports or can otherwise legally stay in Spain easier than we could. As far as people, concerns, and playing football, I can only speak to our own experience in Valencia and it was great. Our kids didn’t speak either (they were 9 and 12 when we arrived), but attending local schools gave them friends and Spanish speaking opportunities. Kids, parents and teachers were all welcoming and supportive. As for soccer/football, we utilized friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend relationships to get tryouts. If your son is a good player, and has coaches that vouch for him, see who is in their networks. We’ve had good experiences with teams and coaches thus far, but it’s possible that it gets more competitive at your son’s age. Also, if you’ve read this piece, then you know that getting on a FIFA team can take time. Keep a log of every team your son has played on, and any documentation you might need. One mistake can hold the process up for months. Good luck!

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