Football: Bargains which sell the game short

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The Independent Online
GEORGE GRAHAM'S clear intention to buy up the nation's entire stock of central defenders takes some understanding, but the good thing about his decision to re-employ Martin Keown was that he resisted going after one of those modestly priced foreign players with plenty to be modest about.

Among the many problems domestic football faces at the moment, the intrusion of cheap labour from abroad - particularly the old eastern European countries and Scandinavia - is becoming one of the more serious. There was once a brief period of wishful thinking in which what was then the First Division seemed on the brink of becoming enriched with outstanding foreign internationals who promised to help balance British qualities with Continental and South American verve. In reality the benefits over nearly 20 years have been minimal.

Osvaldo Ardiles was a conspicuous exception at Tottenham and currently Eric Cantona is decorating sufficient games with his skills to conceal the fact that work is not something for which he has much attachment. Andrei Kanchelskis and Peter Schmeichel are of good international quality, but after that you get into a grey area in which the whole health and future of professional football begins to be threatened by the importation of players who are bought because they are just about good enough to get into Premier League teams without the clubs having to pay the exorbitant fees being asked by other British clubs or spend money on developing their own youngsters.

Not long ago the threat seemed straightforward and easily rectified. Broadly speaking the criteria for allowing foreign players into the country was based on what were then sensible prerequisites. The players had to be of international standing (12 caps was reckoned to be acceptable) and the purchasing club had to show that it had made efforts to promote from within or purchase from other British clubs.

Gradually, the ground rules were eroded, allowing clubs to buy players of suspicious credentials. Only last month Ipswich Town obtained a work permit for the Bulgarian, Bontcho Guentchev, on the basis that he was an experienced international. That turned out not to be the case and his arrival belatedly alerted the Department of Employment to the incoming tide of players who fail to fulfil the original qualifications. They have now agreed to meet the FA, League, Premier League and Professional Footballers' Association later this month, when the qualification is likely to be increased to 20 caps.

The evidence so far is that Guentchev is a useful player, but his pedigree is hardly outstanding. Ipswich have simply attempted to obtain a bargain, and being one of those rarities, a club with a social conscience, they can balance their argument with evidence of promoting from within. In addition, they were also among the leaders in the purchase of fine Continental players who genuinely improved football in Britain. Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen were among the best ever to have appeared in the League.

Ipswich can claim that more than a third of their professional staff come from within 50 miles of the town, so why quibble now over two who come from a little further away (Macedonia and Bulgaria via Sporting Lisbon)? But they knew full well that when they bought Vlado Bozinoski and Guentchev for a total price of pounds 350,000, they could not purchase equivalent players in Britain for three times that amount.

The immediate problem is not so much the increasing numbers or even whether the foreign players add to the quality of the game in Britain, but the fact that every penny spent on imports depletes the money in circulation in the domestic game. That is especially damaging to the smaller clubs, who have always relied on cup success and the selling of players up-market to make ends meet. Gordon Taylor, of the PFA, has been careful to make it clear that he is not against the import of good quality players but he now sees the loss of transfer income as one of the game's most harmful difficulties. He estimates that the recent batch of signings has cost nearly pounds 6m, money he says might well have gone to lower division clubs which are the traditional source of talent. Up until the last few days the Department of Employment has shown only mild concern over the number of non-EC players being bought cheaply, though it recently refused a work permit to Oleg Salenko, of Dynamo Kiev, who was wanted by Tottenham.

The problem is not confined to British football. The transfer system is fundamental to the health of the game across the world, which is why there will be huge opposition when the European Commission eventually tries to make it illegal on the grounds of its incompatibility with the Community's principles on employment and free movement. The situation is not helped by the Continental moguls whose money has ensured that the top quality players now circulate amongst a small handful of clubs. The distasteful way in which Silvio Berlusconi can buy top-rank internationals and keep them in reserve at Milan is simply an extension of having a priceless art collection and refusing public access.

It would be a different situation in Britain if clubs could recoup by selling more of their own leading players to foreign clubs, but there are not enough to go round, which is exactly why comparatively cheap foreign ones can more or less guarantee themselves first-team football in the Premier League. The danger is at both ends of the spectrum: small clubs lose an important part of their income while the big ones fail to raise standards or develop their own talent. No one can blame clubs for looking for useful players at bargain prices, but, for the sake of the game's future, stopping Britain becoming a basement full of them is something football needs to attend to, and soon.