Liz Elsewhere

The American , December 19th, 2007
“Soccer's Import Battle”
by Liz Mair Link to original source


Will England establish quotas on the number of foreign players allowed on each Premier League team? Probably not anytime soon, writes LIZ MAIR.

Soccer FeatureLast month, the English national soccer team failed to qualify for the 2008 European Championship tournament, losing 3-2 to Croatia in front of shell-shocked supporters at London's Wembley Stadium. Though it was only the latest embarrassment for a squad that has consistently underachieved in big international matches, missing out on Euro 2008 was especially disastrous. England immediately fired the team's manager, Steve McClaren. The loss has accelerated a debate over how to nurture top domestic talent - a debate that been roiling European soccer in general, and English soccer in particular, for several years now.

Despite the struggles of its national squad, England's Barclays Premier League has become the most lucrative and popular soccer league in the world, thanks in part to a steady influx of foreign players. But some argue that, by importing so many foreigners, the Premier League has stifled the development of homegrown English players. Fewer than half of all Premier League players are English; among the top teams, the percentage of native players is even smaller. At first-place Arsenal, only five members of the 35-player first team are English. At third-place Chelsea, the 25-member first team includes only eight Englishmen.

The dynamic is quite different in Italy, where only about 30 percent of players in Serie A, the top Italian soccer league, are non-Italians. Even at the best clubs, such as AS Roma and Juventus, foreign players make up roughly half of the first team. Does this explain why Italy has been more successful than England on the international stage? Some soccer pundits think so. The Italians have won four World Cups, including in 2006, and one European Championship; England has won only one World Cup - when they hosted the tournament back in 1966 - and zero European crowns. Some reckon those numbers might be different if only the English Premier League functioned more like Serie A - that is, if it featured a higher portion of domestic players.

Sepp Blatter, the president of soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, has stressed the need to protect native talent pools. In October, he called for limiting the number of foreign footballers playing for each European club to a maximum of five. Having more foreigners than that “is not good for the development of football, for the education of young players,” Blatter said. He may have a point, but it’s questionable whether a strict quota of this sort is legal under European law. Despite Blatter’s assertion that “footballers are not workers … because you need 11 to play a match,” the European Court of Justice has already ruled that sports teams within the European Union cannot be prevented from hiring EU residents on the basis of nationality. That means the EU would have to change the law for such a quota rule to stand, which it is unlikely to do merely to staunch the flow of foreign soccer stars. 

Of course, there is an alternative to the heavy-handed and legally dubious Blatter plan. In England, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) has proposed that clubs be required to include more players who have trained at their own football academies. This would mimic the “homegrown player” rule established by UEFA, the governing body of European soccer. The UEFA rule, which came into effect last year, stipulates that teams playing in the UEFA Cup or Champions League competitions must carry a minimum number of club-trained players and a minimum number of players trained within the country, in general, whether they are foreign or domestic. This season, the minimum numbers are three “homegrown” players and three club-trained players; in 2008-09, they will rise to four and four.

To be sure, the “homegrown player” rule might also run afoul of EU law: officials in Brussels are investigating it. But according to Britain’s Independent newspaper, among the players in English football academies aged 16 to 18, some 15 percent are not English. This suggests that the UEFA rule—and the similar rule backed by the PFA—may indeed pass muster under European anti-discrimination statutes. But whether such rules will generate a spike in the number of English players on English teams—and whether they will expand the pool of top-tier English players eligible for the national side—remains in doubt. 

Count Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger among the skeptics. Wenger opposes quotas on foreign players, and with good reason. Unlike rival club Manchester United—whose manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, supports quotas—Arsenal’s success is based more on its ability to sign foreign players at a low cost than its ability to develop homegrown talent through expensive investment in its football academy. As a result, the club is only about one-seventh English. In its match this past Sunday against Chelsea, Arsenal did not field a single Englishman. If the club were forced to “go native” and purge many of its foreigners, there is no doubt it would be less successful, at least in the short term. 

This gets to the basic problem with quotas: they may or may not benefit the English national team, but they will almost certainly harm some of the most talented Premier League squads. In the most lucrative soccer league on the planet, this would be bad business. For that reason, more than any other, English soccer fans should not expect to see harsh new quotas any time soon, no matter how much Sepp Blatter, the PFA, or Sir Alex Ferguson may like them.

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