Football: Fifa plans a curb on foreigners

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PREMIERSHIP TEAMS could be forced to field a minimum of six English players at all times under revolutionary - or rather counter-revolutionary - proposals floated yesterday by Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, football's world governing body.

Blatter told European Union sports ministers, who were meeting in Germany, that he wanted to reverse some of the effects of the Bosman ruling by restoring the local and national identity of football clubs.

If Blatter's plans come to fruition - and they would have to overcome anticipated stiff opposition from the European Commission - the new rule would devastate team selection in the Premiership and in the Scottish, Italian and Spanish leagues.

Manchester United won the European Cup last week with just four English players (Gary Neville, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Andy Cole) in their starting line-up. Arsenal, runners-up in the Premiership, and Leeds (fourth) both started the final game of last season with six non-English players and used three non-English substitutes. Chelsea often started games last season with only two English players. Rangers and Barcelona, to name but two, frequently field virtually all-foreign teams.

On Tuesday, Blatter said in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde: "We wish to adopt the following resolution: to insist that in each team more than half the players on the pitch - that is six players - should be eligible for selection by the national team of the country where the championship is being played."

It is understood that Blatter discussed his plans - which are backed by Uefa, European football's governing body - with the sports ministers yesterday, and a joint Fifa-Uefa press release was issued afterwards.

"Fifa and Uefa called for account to be taken, both in the texts issued by the European institutions as well as in their administrative and judicial policies, of the specific nature of sport and particularly of football," the statement said. "They also appealed for acknowledgement of certain principles ... and the necessity of protecting that national identity of clubs."

Blatter has said that football made a mistake in allowing the Bosman ruling to be implemented without prior negotiation with Brussels, which might have cushioned its impact on the game. His new proposals, which would see no team fielding fewer than six home-grown players, seek to address that.

Scottish, Welsh and Irish players would not count towards the quota for an English Premiership team. Ryan Giggs, a Welshman, would have to play as one of a maximum of five "foreigners" in a Manchester United side. Substitutions would also have to respect the "national six" rule. A Premiership team starting with six English players would always have to substitute an Englishman for an Englishman.

To be implemented, the quotas would have to be formally approved by EU governments as an exception to European law - as established by the Bosman ruling - on the free movement of players between clubs and countries.

"Football is something special and that needs to be taken into account in the Treaty of Rome," a Fifa spokesman said yesterday. He added that Uefa's general secretary, Gerhard Aigner, accompanied Blatter to Germany to support his ideas.

"The starting point for change is an exchange of views," the Fifa spokesman said, adding that the proposals were in their early stages. "The figure of six [non-domestic nationals allowed in each side] is an indicative figure [of the scenario that Blatter is hoping to achieve]." The spokesman added: "This is just the first step to dialogue with the political authorities."

Several ministers, notably the French and the Italians, are understood to think that sport should be formally declared a "special case", not always subject to EU laws on freedom of movement. Their chief concern is to protect young players - and clubs - from the poaching of teenage stars. It seems unlikely that a majority of governments would be prepared to go as far as the Blatter plans, but once they have been outlined in detail, a consensus for change could lead to some restructuring.

If Blatter's plans are implemented, the main effects would be to create more opportunities for home-grown players and a rapid spiral in the price of English players within this country. Europe's largest clubs, especially those such as Chelsea, where foreign representation is so high, are likely to oppose any changes, at least in the near future, if only because they have so many of their staff under contract for several years.

Brendon Batson, the deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, said: "We will have to wait to see what happens, but anything that would help the development of domestic talent would be a good thing."