Football: Fifa call for foreign policy summit

Is English football overdoing the Continental? The authorities have blown the whistle. By Alex Hayes
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ALMOST FOUR years after a previously little known Belgian footballer by the name of Jean-Marc Bosman single-handledly changed the face of European football, Fifa - the game's world governing body - has finally decided to fight back.

The Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, has called for a joint meeting involving Fifa, Uefa (the European governing body), the various European League representatives, and the European Commissioner, to discuss and act on the alarming rise in the number of foreign imports.

"In the autumn, when the European Commission has been newly constituted under the chairmanship of Romano Prodi, Fifa will be discussing the issue," said a spokesman last night. "We have already sought a meeting with the Commission and will be looking to make further progress following the meeting of European Sports Ministers in early June."

At the time of that meeting in Germany, Blatter suggested that in every team more than half the players on the pitch - a minimum of six - should be eligible for selection by the national team of the country where the championship is being played. Were this to be implemented, the composition of most Premiership teams, not to mention the way football is marketed here, would be radically altered.

The Bosman ruling - which came into effect in December 1995 when the Belgian won a European Court of Appeal ruling against his former club FC Liege, after they had refused him a move at the end of his contract to the French club Dunkirk without a transfer fee - had two major consequences. The first was that players who came to the end of their contract were now free agents and could move anywhere without a transfer fee. The second was that clubs, who were previously restricted to fielding a maximum of three foreigners at any one time, could select an entire team of non- nationals.

It is the latter problem the authorities want to address. Their main concern is that the Premiership, and other European leagues, are being swamped by foreign players who are preventing home-grown talents from breaking into first teams. The former England manager Bobby Robson was one of many to voice concern: "When I was manager at Ipswich in 1979 there were only four or five foreign players in the League but now there are 300. That means 300 English kids will not get a game."

Robson slightly overestimated the number of foreigners in the Premiership, but the statistics still support the detractors. During the first seven years of the Premiership, the number of foreigners has risen from 11 to just over 200 - a staggering 1,800 per cent increase. In the immediate post-Bosman era, the influx of overseas recruits has been even more pronounced. As recently as the 1996-97 season there were only 34 foreigners in the Premiership. By the following year, there were 134.

The amount of money spent on foreign transfers has also shot through the roof. In the 1994-95 season, pounds 28.5m (or 25 per cent of the overall spending by Premier League clubs) went on foreigners, the most expensive being Daniel Amokachi, who cost Everton pounds 3m. Last season, pounds 75.7m was lavished on imports (44 per cent of the total); this time the most costly was Jaap Stam at pounds 10.75m.

As far as Brendon Batson, the Professional Footballers' Association deputy chief executive, is concerned, the situation is out of control. "There is freedom of movement and nobody would wish to restrict people's rights. However, if you want to develop and protect a thriving domestic game, you need to ensure it has an identity. That requires the development of young players, not the buying of foreigners.

"We would like to see some kind of ruling, along the lines of Blatter's proposal. If you look back prior to the Bosman judgement, when teams could field only three non-UK nationals, there was something in place then that allowed the development of youth. Now you are left with an open- door policy and, at times, there are only one or two English players in a Premier team. That cannot be right."

There were certainly occasions last year when Chelsea's team sheet included only a couple of English players, and only the Arsenal back-four have, so far, survived Arsene Wenger's foreign policy. Even the smaller, traditionally more conservative clubs like Derby have invested heavily in non-British talent. Why? Because the English transfer market is so inflated.

On the foreign markets, Premiership managers can buy players, often with international experience, at a fraction of the cost of an English player. Michael Duberry may be a solid defender who, at 23, represents an investment, but is he really of equal worth to the World Cup winner, Marcel Desailly, despite the Frenchman's 31 years?

The advent of high domestic transfers and numerous foreign buys can be largely attributed to Sky and the money it has generated for clubs. Over the last decade, the broadcasters have handed the British game more than pounds 1bn in rights fees alone. Vic Wakeling, Sky Sports' managing director, acknowledges there are legitimate concerns, though he insists: "If the League wasn't wealthy and healthy, there would be a serious threat, particularly from Italy and Spain, that we could lose a lot of our key players to them."

All in all, Blatter's proposals have been well received, although serious doubts remain as to whether such a radical policy could ever be adopted. "Clearly, it is better if more players from England are playing in the Premiership," said Geoff Thompson, the recently appointed chairman of the Football Association, "as it gives the England manager a greater pool to select from. But we are governed by EC regulations, so unless you get a consensus of opinion, there is little we can do. Even just in this country."

David Davies, the FA's acting chief executive, added: "England on its own will not achieve very much on this, but with the support of other countries it is another argument. There is no specific timetable, but once the new European Commission is in place, things will be able to move forward."

In the meantime, it will be up to the Premiership owners and managers to exercise their good judgement on whether long-term investment and the development of youth is worth sacrificing for short-term success. The fact that many of the top clubs have recently put their trust in youth academies, suggests that the warnings are being heeded. But it may be some time before results are tangible. Until then, the foreign invasion marches on.

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