Football: Blatter gains support for quotas plan

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GERMANY'S NATIONAL coach, Erich Ribbeck, said yesterday that he welcomed a proposal by Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, world football's governing body, to reduce the number of foreigners playing in domestic leagues.

"I would welcome every decision that would mean more German players could play [in Germany]," Ribbeck said, speaking on the day that The Independent reported details of Blatter's plans. The Fifa president wants at least six players from each club's home country fielded at all times.

This would mean curbs on foreigners for many Premiership clubs, not least Manchester United - who started the European Cup final with just four English players - and Arsenal, Chelsea and Leeds, who regularly field six or more non-Englishmen. Welsh, Scottish and Irish players would be classified as "foreigners" under the plans.

Since the Bosman ruling in 1995, teams in EU countries can field as many foreign players from fellow EU members as they want. Chelsea, formerly under Ruud Gullit and now under Gianluca Vialli, have signed more than a dozen foreigners. Arsene Wenger has followed suit at Arsenal and most clubs are following the trend. Even Wimbledon, a side that has traditionally utilised mostly home-grown players, is now likely to find itself swamped with Norwegians. Windmore, the Norwegian company which is the major shareholder in the club, has said that once Egil Olsen is installed as manager Joe Kinnear's successor, its strategy will be to bring players over from Norway.

Blatter's proposals, which were floated at a European sports ministers' meeting on Wednesday and have the backing of Uefa, European football's governing body, yesterday received enthusiastic support from Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association.

"I very much approve of what Blatter is proposing," Taylor said. "We've got a problem with European law as it stands. Action needs to be taken at European parliamentary level."

This movement, en masse, of so many players in recent years, Taylor said, was not just a problem for young English footballers who have found their opportunities limited. "Most of the French and Norwegian international sides now play away from their home leagues and the Brazilian league has suffered greatly by losing so many players. I'd expect every national team coach to support Blatter's plans as well."

Mike Lee, a spokesman for the Premier League, said: "We have a limit of three non-EU players. Within the EU, there is no legal basis to limit the numbers, post-Bosman, and I think anyone trying to change that would have great difficulty."

In other sports, notably rugby league and cricket, there are so few European players who could compete in English leagues that EU laws are not a major issue. Both sports have other restrictions in place, however.

In rugby league, where the overwhelming majority of foreigners are from Australia and New Zealand, no club is allowed more than five foreign (non- EU) players on their books. Exceptions have been made for Gateshead (whose 22 players consist of 20 Australians, a Welshman and an Irishman) and London Broncos (20 Australians from 25 players) while Super League becomes established in their areas, but the long-term plan is to produce more home-grown players.

"Obviously if you relax your restrictions on the number of foreign players, it has a negative impact on home talent," Dave Swanton, a spokesman for Wigan Warriors, said. "We've had some exceptional players from Australia. But we also produce our home-grown talent. We have numerous players who are Wigan born and bred and have come up from grass-roots level."

In English cricket, the first-class counties are limited to one overseas player each, an arrangement that cannot be enforced by law but seems to work because of a consensus that it is good for the game.

"It's a purely voluntary agreement," said Andrew Walpole, a spokesman for the English Cricket Board. He added that it was designed to make sure that there is a supply of high quality players for the England team. "It works well for cricket," he said. Aside from in the World Cup, presumably.