A decade after their defeat in the Bosman case, UEFA are back with regulations they claim will promote home-grown players rather than restrict foreigners. Matthew Taylor outlines the rules and the clubs’ likely response
UEFA president Lennart Johansson clearly relishes a fight. His plans to try to restrict the number of foreign players included in squads for his club competitions from the 2006-07 season was always bound to provoke the wrath of the continent’s premier clubs. Lined up against him are most of the big hitters of the European game: the G-14 clubs and representatives of the more influential national leagues and federations. Behind them stand the financial backers, sponsors, corporate interests and media groups who have helped to make top-level European football such a lucrative business. Among the potential adversaries are those clubs who would have broken away from UEFA a few years ago had the governing body not agreed to expand the Champions League.
The new regulations demand that entrants for the 2006-07 Champions League and UEFA Cup will have to include a minimum of four “home-grown” players in their two 25-man squads, named in September and February, one for each half of the competition. The minimum will rise to six players in 2007, then eight per squad by 2008-09. Half will be required to be a product of the club’s own academy, with the others merely trained within the same national association. The definition of a club-trained player is also fairly rigid: he would need to have been registered with the club for at least three seasons during his formative years as a player, between the ages of 15 and 21.
But the nationality of the player is irrelevant in these plans – all that matters is where he receives his footballing education. This, together with the fact that the regulations have been framed in such a way as to positively encourage young domestic talent rather than limit the opportunities of others (and refer to the squad rather than the team), seems to have convinced UEFA that they have a strong legal case. According to chief executive Lars-Christer Olsson, it is legal because it is “a sporting rule” and not a restriction.
Underpinning UEFA’s bold move is the desire of the governing bodies to return to the pre-Bosman era. Johansson has stated that his aim is to restore the pre-1995 system, where clubs were only allowed to have five foreign players on the pitch at any one time. In truth, many of those charged with running the game, at national as well as international level, have always refused to accept the Bosman verdict and its implications. Sepp Blatter thought, and continues to assert, that the European courts had been wrong in their interpretation of the law. Only grudgingly were the new regulations, governing international transfers and codifying the Bosman judgment by putting a stop to the restrictions by nationality of European Union players, drafted in May 2001. Even then, the mechanism for periodic review suggested that the changes were regarded as temporary. A challenge from the top was always likely to come and this appears to be it.
On the surface, there seem to be sensible reasons to support the regulations. The emphasis on clubs developing their own players through youth academies can hardly be objected to, although it might prove harder for some to achieve the “home-grown” quota than others. French clubs, for example, required since 1974 to run centres de formation, will surely benefit, at least until others catch up. Although they have partly been sold as such, there is no reason why the regulations should benefit national teams. Even if we accept the equation that fewer foreign players equals better (rather than simply more) local ones, the rules don’t guarantee this. Rather, what they could easily lead to is an acceleration of the trend for players to migrate to the richer clubs and leagues at a younger age.
Legal considerations will doubtless determine the outcome, but at the heart of all this is the issue of identity. Next month, member associations will decide at the UEFA Congress in Estonia whether to apply the rule to domestic competition. Johansson may well repeat his argument that the sight of 11 foreigners on the pitch and three Yugoslavs on the bench at Bologna will stop local youngsters wanting to play the game. But most of us have surely recognised that, even since 1995, the world (including the football world) has changed. The financial and sporting success of the Premiership and other leading European leagues has been based to some degree on the importation of the best international players. On the whole, this has been embraced rather than opposed by supporters. Few care where players come from as long as they win.
The national composition of club sides seems to matter much more to columnists of broadsheet newspapers and football administrators than to anybody else. We might not like it but, in a globalised world, the notion that a football team should be representative of the place in which it plays in anything other than name has surely long passed.
From WSC 218 April 2005. What was happening this month