Sepp Blatter's "6+5" campaign does not add up, and not just because it is illegal under European employment law. Fifa, the world governing body of which Blatter is president, is fond of pointing out that it has more members than the United Nations, but the flipside of this geographical reach is a vulnerability to the global economy.
Blatter wants to promote competitiveness by artificial measures but that is only practical in a closed market with favourable laws. American Football's NFL, thanks to anti-trust legislation, and the general agreement of franchise owners, is able to impose a series of measures – the draft, a salary cap, pooling of receipts, even fixing the schedule. Professional football is too big for that. There are too many club owners, too many legislatures.
But even if Blatter could push his proposals through, are they necessary? He argues the status quo increases inequality between clubs, and that the latters' loss of national identity threatens international competition. The second case is debatable. The rise of the Champions League may be a threat to the prestige of the international game, not Arsenal picking 11 foreigners.
Blatter's first argument is founded in fact, up to a point. No one would dispute that some leagues, like the Premier League, are unbalanced. That the "Big Four" can sign almost anyone in the world does strengthen their advantage. However, Liverpool can buy Fernando Torres primarily because of the money being generated by the English game in general, and by their participation in the Champions League in particular. Blatter's 6+5 would not prevent that, Liverpool would still buy Torres, but instead of also bringing in Philipp Degen, this summer's Swiss signing, they would take Micah Richards from Manchester City.
They would pay a premium price, though; the inevitable result of 6+5 would be a huge rise in the cost of English players, and their concentration at the top clubs. Stewart Downing would by now have left Middlesbrough while Chelsea would not have let Glen Johnson go to Portsmouth.
The Premier League would thus remain unequal, but would the national team at least benefit? Not necessarily. Many of these players would be stockpiled, like Shaun Wright-Phillips at Chelsea. There was much hype this week about the revelation that only 170 Englishmen began a Premier League match. Only 11 are needed for a team, only 23 for a World Cup squad. If Croatia, with a population of less than five million, can produce a team which can defeat England home and away, and Greece, with barely a recognisable name, can win Euro 2004, the fact that only 170 Englishmen can get a place in arguably the best league in the world should not be a bar to a successful national team. Franz Beckenbauer suggested England had failed to reach Euro 2008 because of the number of foreigners here. There were very few playing in England prior to 1978, yet England failed to reach the finals of the previous three tournaments.
Ten Englishmen started the Champions League final, more than figured at kick-off in any other European Cup final, including the previous 14 featuring English clubs. When Liverpool reached the final in 1985 they had two Englishmen in the team. A decade earlier Leeds had four when they met Bayern Munich. The others were Scots, Welsh and Irish and, since Blatter indicated all UK players would count in the new rule, a similar situation could arise again.
Only twice, in the 16-year history of the Champions League, has a country been better represented than England in Moscow. There were no Croats or Russians in the Champions League final. England failed to reach this summer's finals through poor management, plus Steven Gerrard's unfathomable miss in Moscow, and the daft penalty Wayne Rooney conceded soon after.
The danger is that Blatter's proposal will result in a compromise, specifically the toughening of Uefa's "home-grown" rule. The consequence would be an increase in the number of foreign teenagers lured to England to be groomed in the Big Four's academies, so they would count.
The irony is that this is another issue Blatter has campaigned on, and in this case he is right to do so. That he risks undermining this worthier campaign suggests that, not for the first time, he has not thought things through.Reuse content