Like it or not, more foreigners are on their way. Guy Osborn and Steve Greenfield explain the new work permit rules in the pipeline

The argument that too many foreigners are ruining British football often revolves around quality rather than quantity. By common consent the likes of Ginola, Zola and Stam have made a positive contribution to the Premier League but there are many others who could be regarded as journeymen. It is this influx, the critics argue, that is devaluing the national character of the game and denying domestic players opportunities. Changes now being considered by the Department of Education and Employment may result in even greater numbers of overseas players coming into the country.

Overseas players can be divided into two categories: those who are nationals of a European Economic Area country (the European Union plus another few coun­tries, such as Norway and Iceland) and those who are not. The Bosman ruling, apart from guaranteeing out-of-contract players free transfers, also established that limitations on the import of other Europeans, such as the old “three foreigners” rule, were unlawful.

However, players who are nationals of countries outside the EEA still require a work permit to play in this country. Mark Bosnich, for example, had prob­lems obtaining one after making three appearances for Manchester United in 1989-1991. Work permits have traditionally only been granted where “there is a clear benefit to employment and the economy in Britain”. The new rules being considered by the DoEE, although far from concrete at this stage, seem likely to lift these restrictions and allow clubs to sign players from outside EEA countries without having to reach the same criteria.

This may have a number of effects. The worst-case scenario (advanced by the Professional Footballers Association am­ong others) is that we will be flooded with sub­standard but cheap players, and that the health of the game will suffer as a result.

Club managers, how­ever, may take a broader view and be pleased to be able to sign such players without having to jump through the bureaucratic hoops. Southampton will testify as to the usefulness of such overseas players – Latvia’s Marians Pahars was eventually allowed to sign (after an appeal) towards the end of last season and his goals proved crucial in the Saints’ relegation fight.

Until now, those players who are not from any of the EEA member states have had to comply with a number of conditions before they received a permit. The employer has to show first why the job should go to the player concerned rather than a resident worker – if Alex Ferguson wanted to sign the Chilean striker Marcelo Salas from Lazio, he would have to show he had made every effort to em­ploy a player from within the EEA and why this was unsuccessful.

Additionally, the player would need to have played in at least 75 per cent of his country’s competitive matches in the past two years and certain minimum salary commitments had to be met. At present, work permits have to be renewed each season, which may create problems if the player has not been active in the international side during the intervening period.

The experience of Brad Friedel at Liverpool high­lights another problem: he has not played enough games to have his permit renewed (75 per cent of games for which they are available is the requirement), yet his contract is for more than one season. So Liverpool could end up with a player under contract but without a work permit. One of the new proposals is to bring the length of the permit into line with the contract period. Similarly, players would no longer have to show they have participated in the 75 per cent of international matches.

Any relaxation is bound to increase the number of players, but this may happen anyway because of political changes. As the European Union expands eastwards, the number of footballers with the right to play here will increase. But relaxation of the non-EEA work permit requirements could mean the arrival of more players from less traditional sources, such as South America.

We may witness the scouring of previously limited markets with strong junior football such as Aus­tralia, where West Ham and Leeds are already heavily involved, and the United States. What is clear is that the trend is impossible to reverse (ruling out an electoral win by the UK Independence Party) and as long as clubs have money to spend, England and Scotland will be an attractive destination for players of all nationalities.

From WSC 149 July 1999. What was happening this month

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