Foreign footballer cap not illegal says report

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The Independent Online

Controversial plans by football's world governing body to limit the number of foreign players do not breach EU rules, an independent report declared today.

Fifa's so-called "6+5" rule has been overwhelmingly approved by 155 of the organisation's member nations, but dismissed as illegal by the European Commission and most EU governments because they say it amounts to discrimination at work and a restriction on the free movement of workers.

Now the Institute for European Affairs (INEA) - commissioned by Fifa itself to study the issue - claims the idea of restricting foreign players in league games does not fall foul of EU rules on free movement of workers.

"There is no conflict with European law," INEA chairman Professor Jurgen Gramke told a press conference in Brussels.

He insisted the report, although commissioned by Fifa, was entirely independent.

"We took no instructions from Fifa," he added. "INEA accepted this commission on condition that our requirements of complete independence were met."

The report says that, under EU law, the "regulatory autonomy" of sporting associations is recognised and supported.

"The key aim of the 6+5 rule in the view of the experts is the creation and assurance of sporting competition.

"The 6+5 rule does not impinge on the core area of the right to freedom of movement. The rule is merely a rule of the game declared in the general interest of sport in order to improve the sporting balance between clubs and associations".

Fifa endorsed the rule in May last year, but six months later EU ministers said it clearly broke EU rules.

The 6+5 rule established that at the start of each match, a club must field at least six players who would be eligible for the national team of the country of the club.

But there would be no limit on substitutes and no limit on the number of non-national players that clubs can sign.

Today's report says that, at worst, the 6+5 rule could constitute "indirect discrimination" because "it is not directly based on the nationality of professional players".

Instead it "merely considers entitlement to play for the national team concerned, and any possible indirect discrimination can be defended on the basis of compelling reasons of general interest".

At the moment, quota systems in football are outlawed, thanks to a European Court ruling in 1995 known as the Bosman Case.

It declared illegal the system, then in operation in many national leagues and in Uefa club competitions, which allowed only three "foreign" players in a team.

The Bosman judgment had a dramatic effect on football, said today's report, opening up the use of foreign players to such a degree that up to 56 per cent of national league players are now not eligible to play for the national team of the league in which they play. In addition, up to half of the "foreign" players are "non-European".

This development discourages young indigenous footballing talent, because clubs can recruit fully trained players from elsewhere, often cheaper, the report points out.

It says the central aim of the 6+5 rule is to generate and safeguard sporting competition, and its goal is best summed up as "sport should remain sport".

Professor Gramke said the report's conclusions justifying the compatibility of the 6+5 rule with EU law also applied to other team sports such as handball, basketball and ice hockey.

"It has an important protective function for the whole of international sport, so that sport can remain sport," he said.

The findings add fresh ammunition to Fifa's challenge to the European Commission and governments to recognise the 6+5 rule.

A Fifa spokesman said the report would form the basis of fresh talks with Commission officials, including Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla.

Fifa president Sepp Blatter is determined to see the 6+5 rule in place by the start of the 2012-13 season and the Commission is currently equally determined to block him.

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