INSIDE FOOTBALL: Uefa curbs on big clubs' purchasing power expose FA betrayal of game

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The Independent Online
If you had wanted to check the health of top-flight English football, you could have done worse than measure its response to last week's polite announcement by Uefa of ever-so-modest proposals for more home-grown players to be included in first-team squads. In the Premier League's immediate opposition, led by David Dein, the vice-chairman of Arsenal, frothing about possible legal action to oppose this "restraint of trade", the answer was provided as surely as in a GP's file: the patient is overheating, to the point of hysteria.

The news that Geoff Thompson, the chairman of the Football Association and thus responsible for its 43,000 registered clubs, had gone to Zurich putting the case for the 18 richest was another stunning example of the FA's capitulation in the face of the Premier League.

The proposal from European football's governing body is that from the 2006-07 season, clubs competing in the Uefa Cup and Champions' League must include in their 25-man squads at least two players who have come through their own academy, and two developed by another domestic club. Uefa wants these numbers to increase to three of each the following season, rising by 2008-09 to four.

What we did not hear much was that, apart from in Italy, the proposal has overwhelming support across Europe. The major leagues in Spain, Germany and France - which recently signed a TV deal more lucrative than the Premiership's - told Uefa they approve the measure as a positive way of strengthening links with local populations and increasing opportunities for young players.

Uefa's chief executive, Lars Christer-Olsson, a graduate of the Swedish culture which, like much of Europe, invests sport with some human values beyond mere moneymaking and the pursuit of silverware, reported: "A vast majority are in favour of the proposal. There are only a couple of countries where the clubs and leagues have different opinions."

In Italy, though Serie A is against the measure, the Italian FA announced it is in favour and intends to introduce the system for domestic football. Here, our free-market Premier League even raised the faintly hilarious prospect of a case expensively mounted in court for our clubs' right not to play any of their own Academy-produced players.

"The product," Dein said, meaning Premier League football, "is good. We don't want to debase it." Uefa begs to differ. This week it said that it is proposing the measure to counter "trends which threaten to damage the long-term interests of our sport". They were: lack of investment in player training; reduction in competitive balance; hoarding of players by clubs; weakening of national teams; and erosion of clubs' local identity.

The second in this list takes head-on Dein's assertion that "the product" is thriving. Uefa has observed that across Europe, since pay-TV riches poured in mostly to the biggest clubs, coupled with the post-Bosman free movement of players, success has been concentrated ever more tightly to the two or three richest clubs. Here, Manchester United and Arsenal's duopoly is only challenged by Chelsea now because of Roman Abramovich's riches and the pounds 88m loss he was prepared to underwrite.

On the legitimacy of this, far less the morality, our FA is silent. Here is what Uefa said: "Should we accept that a very rich club can buy an unlimited number of players, pay them massive salaries and ensure that their smaller rivals never have a chance to win a competition? That is not what sport is about. There needs to be some degree of balance, some means to keep the playing field at least reasonably level."

Around Europe, Uefa has actually been criticised for being too timid. It is, however, wary of overstepping European law, and is taking things one step at a time.

The argument that clubs are not investing sufficiently in player training is refuted by the Premier League, whose clubs are estimated to have spent some pounds 100m on facilities and coaches since 1997, when the academy system was introduced.

Seven years on, however, the first academy graduates are 24, and few are the heart of Premiership teams. FourFourTwo magazine recently published figures showing that opportunities for home-grown players have significantly decreased over the last decade: last season, only 103 of the Premier League's 900 players were playing for the club which developed them; in 1993-94 there were 650 players, of which 164 were home-grown.

A Uefa spokesman, William Gaillard, told me Uefa had found in a near year-long study what many academy coaches here complain about privately: for all the investment, young graduates are losing out as clubs buy ready- made foreign stars. Uefa believes it is actually helping the big clubs with this proposal, allowing them all, together, to give more young players a chance and thereby also reduce their wage bills. Fans, too, Uefa believes, will feel more affection for sides with at least a smattering of home- grown players.

However, in the Premier League meeting to discuss the issue, only Norwich and Charlton spoke in favour, while West Bromwich Albion were said by one insider to be "lukewarm". All other clubs were against. National football associations across Europe are in favour because the measure will help national teams. Our FA, so dominated by the Premier League, was the only one in Europe to lobby against it.

An FA spokesman told me it will not even be discussed by the committees responsible for the England side or youth development; instead it will be considered only by the Professional Game Board, a majority of whose members, including Dein, are Premier League representatives. So, the proposal is certain to be opposed formally by the FA, although the Football League's board has said it is broadly in favour.

Uefa has shocked us here, showing that a governing body can be prepared to govern for what it perceives to be the best interests of the game. It faces threats from G14, an Association of Leagues led, inevitably, by our Premier League's chairman Dave Richards and a clear rival to Uefa. However, Uefa is adamant it must do its job: "The rich clubs' stance does not reflect the game of football," Gaillard said, "but the narrow interests of very wealthy people who regard football not as a game but an investment, for profile or financial reward. We must look at the whole football family, not just a small elite."

You will not hear language like that in Soho Square. Our FA sold out to those individual club owners when they backed the Premier League breakaway in 1992, and that is why our clubs are out of control.


Arsenal: Ashley Cole, Justin Hoyte, Jermaine Pennant

Aston Villa: Stefan Moore, Liam Ridgewell, Darius Vassell, Peter Whittingham, Gareth Barry

Birmingham City: Darren Carter

Blackburn: James McEveley

Bolton Wanderers: Nicky Hunt, Kevin Nolan

Charlton Athletic: Paul Konchesky, Jon Fortune

Chelsea: John Terry

Crystal Palace: Wayne Routledge, Ben Watson, Gary Borrowdale, Tom Soares

Everton: Leon Osman, Tony Hibbert, Nick Chadwick

Fulham: Malik Buari, Dean Leacock, Zesh Rehman, Liam Resonoir, Zat Knight

Liverpool: Steven Gerrard, Neil Mellor, John Welsh, Stephen Warnock, Darren Potter, David Raven

Manchester City: Joey Barton, Shaun and Bradley Wright-Phillips, Stephen Jordan

Manchester United: Kieron Richardson

Middlesbrough: Stewart Downing, Anthony McMahon, James Morrison, Stuart Parnaby, Matthew Bates, Danny Graham

Newcastle United: Shola Ameobi, Steven Taylor

Norwich City: Robert Green, Ryan Jarvis, Ian Henderson, Danny Crow

Portsmouth: Gary O'Neil

Southampton: Leon Best, Martin Cranie,

Tottenham Hotspur: Johnnie Jackson, Ledley King, Phillip Ifil

West Bromwich: Lloyd Dyer

Details FA additional research Matt Denver and Adam Wild