Non-EU players poised to benefit from 'free-movement' ruling

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The Independent Football

Hundreds of non-European Union footballers currently playing in Europe, from countries as diverse as Morocco, Latvia and the Czech Republic, are entitled to the same rights as EU players, the European Commission has confirmed.

Hundreds of non-European Union footballers currently playing in Europe, from countries as diverse as Morocco, Latvia and the Czech Republic, are entitled to the same rights as EU players, the European Commission has confirmed.

The news will have enormous implications for the British game, including making the current limit of fielding three non-EU players in one team illegal in many cases. It will also give non-EU players the right to move to English clubs even when they are not established internationals in their native countries, according to one Member of the European Parliament.

The development comes following a Parliamentary question to the EC by Glyn Ford, the MEP for South-west England, regarding the rights of players from countries outside the EU who were currently playing within the European Union.

In response to Mr Ford's question, Anna Diamantopoulou, the European Commissioner for Social Affairs, said that a number of countries - Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic States - have agreements with the EC that entitle their citizens to equal rights throughout the EU once they have legally found a job in an EU country.

Once an Algerian footballer, for example, has played in France [where the entry requirements are different from the UK], he should be entitled to move freely as an EU citizen to England. He should also be eligible to play for an English side no matter how many times he has played for Algeria. Current British rules would stipulate that he must have played in 75 per cent of his country's internationals during the past two years. The current rules, according to Mr Ford, would be deemed illegal if challenged in court. "Such people have to be classified as "free movement players," Mr Ford said.

Similarly, once a Latvian player has been granted a work permit to play for an English club, he should assume the rights of an EU player. Marian Pahars of Southampton, for example, should not count as a non-EU player as is the present case, said Mr Ford, and nor should the Moroccans, Czechs or Romanians playing at Coventry, Liverpool and Chelsea. If any club were to challenge the rules, and thus field more of their players currently considered "non-EU" nationals, said Mr Ford, they would have the law on their side.

These players' rights, according to the EC, are enshrined in "association agreements" between the EC and the countries above. "The Commission considers that workers who are nationals of these countries should be treated on the same basis as Community nationals when they are legally employed in the member states," Mrs Diamantopoulou said.

The rule does not apply to players not already within the EU, but as most EU countries have different immigration rules, hundreds of players considered ineligible to play here might be eligible after all.

Meanwhile, in a separate development, the EU's Commissioner for Education and Culture, Viviane Reding, yesterday announced that she hopes to reverse some of the effects of the Bosman ruling to ensure the survival of smaller European clubs.

Reding said the Bosman ruling had made it less worthwhile for small clubs to train promising youngsters because they were being stolen away for nothing by the rich, élite clubs. "The policy we want is that more and more young people are trained in more and more clubs, so we will try to go in that direction to help these smaller clubs," Reding said.

Since the Bosman ruling, she said, smaller clubs with their own youth training schemes have complained that there is little return on their investment.

"This cannot be the policy we want," she said, although she added the EC would wait until it had finalised its policy on drug abuse in sport and on a proposed "Action Plan" before publishing proposals on Bosman.

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