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AFP - Chelsea has vowed to vigorously contest FIFA sanctions that would prevent the London club from signing any new players until January 2011.
World football's governing body announced the ban on Thursday after its Dispute Resolution Chamber (DRC) concluded that the Premier League club had induced promising French youngster Gael Kakuta to break his contract with his first club Lens.
FIFA's DRC said Chelsea would not be allowed to register players in the next two transfer windows -- January 2010 and the period between the end of the current season and the end of August 2010.
Kakuta was banned from playing for four months and ordered to pay Lens 780,000 euros compensation. Chelsea will be liable for that amount and a further compensation payment of 130,000 euros to the French club.
But it is the transfer ban that will be of most concern at Stamford Bridge.
If upheld, it would seriously undermine Chelsea's ability to rejuvenate its ageing first-team squad over the next 16 months and the club's reaction to FIFA's shock announcement mixed outrage with incredulity.
Describing the decision as "arbitrary", a club statement vowed that, "Chelsea will mount the strongest appeal possible following the decision of FIFA's Dispute Resolution Chamber over Gael Kakuta.
It added: "The sanctions are without precedent to this level and totally disproportionate to the alleged offence and the financial penalty imposed."
An offensive, left-sided midfielder with Chelsea's reserve team, Kakuta is seen as a future star and after the 2007/2008 season was voted 'Scholar of the Year' by staff at the Chelsea Academy.
He was also a member of the France under-17 side that were beaten finalists in the European Championships last May.
Chelsea can appeal the decision through the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and will take heart from a previous precedent.
Italian club Roma were given a similar ban for two transfer windows over their signing of France defender Philippe Mexes in 2004 but succeeded in having the penalty reduced to one transfer window by appealing to the CAS.
Chelsea, however, could find their chances of a successful appeal compromised by their involvement in previous "tapping up" controversies.
In June 2005, the club was fined 300,000 pounds after being found guilty of making an illegal approach to Ashley Cole while he was still an Arsenal player.
The following year saw Leeds accuse Chelsea of making unauthorised approaches to three youth players although the two clubs eventually reached a settlement in that case.
FIFA's tough stance on the issue underlines the determination of the governing body clamp down on the "tapping up" of players, particularly young ones under contract to the club that first identified and nurtured their talent.
Kakuta was 15 when he signed a contract with Chelsea in June 2007.
Lens immediately complained to FIFA and, on Thursday, their President, Gervais Martel, said he had been vindicated in his belief that Chelsea had "stolen" their player.
"We expected this kind of decision. The player was under contract with us, and they came and stole him away from us," Martel told AFP.
"Chelsea didn't follow the rules. They contacted the player when he wasn't even 16 (years of age) yet, and while he had been contracted to our training group from the age of eight."
Martel added: "The financial sanction isn't over the top given the nature of the infringement, but it's really quite significant when it comes to not being able to recruit players."