Polo: It's simply not polo - British riders rail against influx of 'too-good' foreigners

Home-grown polo players are being ridden out of town, forcing one ex-captain of England to work as a labourer
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The Independent Online

Polo, the world's most exclusive team game, is gripped by a row that has more in common with the hotdog stands of the football terraces than the picnic hampers of southern England.

Polo, the world's most exclusive team game, is gripped by a row that has more in common with the hotdog stands of the football terraces than the picnic hampers of southern England.

With the new season only weeks away, British players are complaining that an influx of skilful Argentinians - many brandishing EU passports - has squeezed them to the sidelines.

Like Premiership football sides, top polo teams are increasingly packed with foreigners, they say, leaving home-grown riders with no chance to ply their trade - and no pay cheque.

The shortage of work is so severe that one former captain of the England side is working as a builder's labourer to pay his bills.

Now British players are calling for government intervention, warning that the foreign invasion could cripple the development of the game, despite a sharp rise in popularity in recent years.

Christopher Le Hardy, chief executive of the British Professional Polo Players Association blamed European labour rulings for the predicament.

EU citizens have the right to work and live in any of the member states, wherever they were born, which effectively makes an "English-only" quota illegal.

"If the law does not protect our sportsmen, they really are stuck," he said. "The purpose is to nurture your own home-grown talent.

"We want some top foreigners to play. We want to compete alongside that quality. But overall our view is that there are too many overseas players in Britain. They are welcome - but not too many of them."

EU enlargement in May could make the situation worse, he suggested, particularly when so many foreign stars from South America, Australia and New Zealand have been able to obtain EU passports.

The Institute of Professional Sport, which is lobbying ministers on behalf of polo, says the problem is shared by ice hockey, rugby and football. Joanne Collins, the executive director of the Ice Hockey Players' Association, says that the number of British professionals has dropped to almost zero in just three seasons.

Although polo is still an exclusive and expensive sport, the involvement of Prince Charles, his sons William and Harry, and celebrities including model Jodie Kidd, has helped bring about a resurgence in the game, now seen as more accessible than ever before. Yet at top end, there is little chance for UK talent to develop.

"Loads of good British players are falling by the wayside," said Margie Brett, the editor of the Polo Times magazine, whose pages have been dominated by the issue.

Even the former England captain Jason Dixon struggles to find work in the "high goal" matches sponsored by wealthy patrons. Jason, aged 34, and the chairman of the British Professional Polo Players Association is a senior figure in the game. Yet the shortage of match fees means he has to work as a part-time building labourer in Cirencester, where he lives, to keep his family afloat.

At his level he needs a string of 12 to 15 ponies and two grooms. He has to earn £50,000 just to cover the costs. "It's my main job and my only stream of income," he says. "There are a lot of foreigners playing over here, and not so many jobs."

Last year he was able to play a few lower level games and, with a combination of teaching and the building work, he survived. But it was bad for his career and his polo, he says. It is not looking good for next season either. "It's looking a little bit sticky. I need 70 to 100 matches, but I'm only 40 to 60 per cent booked."

Foreign players are attracted by the rigorously organised British polo season and the chance to earn good money - up to $500,000 (£275,000) a year for the very best.

Britain also boasts a range of prestigious competitions, including the Gold Cup. But of the 60 players who took part in last summer's competition, only seven were British.

There are now 28 players from outside the EU with European passports - twice as many as there were a year ago. Most are Argentinians who hold Italian citizenship. At the same time, non-EU applications for work permits in the sport have risen by more than 60 per cent in two years. Acknowledged as the world's greatest, players from Argentina are sought after by the millionaire patrons who back the game in Britain.

"People feel it's unfair," said David Wood, the chief executive of the Hurlingham Polo Association, which governs the game in the UK and Ireland.

"I don't think they would have any objection if it was genuine Germans, French or Italians playing, or if they lived in Europe. But they're not even living in Italy. Some of them have never even been to Italy."