Whitehall eases rules for football's foreign legion

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S TOP football teams will find it easier to hire players from overseas under new rules being drawn up by the Government. Ministers are planning to relax the guidelines on work permits for international soccer stars in an attempt to boost standards. They are also working on proposals to bring talented young foreign players for training in Britain.

The moves, revealed before yesterday's FA Cup Final, will delight Premier League managers, long frustrated by restrictions on recruitment of players from outside the EU.

But it will infuriate traditionalists who say the development of young British stars is hampered by the import of international players. Glenn Hoddle said when he was England manager that the flood of foreign footballers would undermine the growth of UK talent.

Margaret Hodge, the Education minister, and Tony Banks, the Sports minister, agree that work permits for international players should be easier for clubs to get, after high-profile rows over the issue.

Foreign footballers will no longer have to prove they have played in 75 per cent of their team's international games over the previous two years to qualify for UK residency rights. The minimum annual salary requirement - often running into millions - will be lifted.

The Government will also change the rules so clubs do not have to renew their foreign players' work permits every year. The right to live and work in Britain will last as long as a player's contract.

Ministers have come under increasing pressure from clubs frustrated by the tough restrictions. There are 48 international footballers in England and seven in Scotland, although clubs are allowed to have only three international players in any one match.

Southampton took six weeks to get a work permit for the Latvian star Marian Pahars after signing him because he did not earn enough to qualify. The club had to increase his salary to take him over the threshold.

"We want to draw on the best available talent wherever it is in the world," one Whitehall source said. "The aim is to speed the process and to be seen to be fair. We want to make sure there is no cartel amongst the rich clubs who can afford to pay the top-notch salaries required by the current rules."

Ministers are also considering ways to spot and sign young overseas players to be trained in Britain. They could have places at the Government's new sports academies, or apprenticeships in top teams.

Teams including FA Cup finalists Newcastle United have long said international players have a valuable contribution to make, recruiting several stars from abroad including the Georgian Temuri Ketsbaia and the Croatian Silvio Maric.

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