Expect rough ride for import limits

MORRIS DALLA COSTA

, Last Updated: 7:13 AM ET

The next major battle in soccer circles may be fought off the pitch, rather than on it.

The outcome could change the face of club soccer significantly.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter is planning to propose legislation which would change the number of foreign players allowed in a starting lineup.

The rule aims to limit teams to five foreign players in a starting lineup during club matches. Blatter will propose the change at FIFA's congress in Sydney, Australia, in May.

"By signing more and more foreign players, clubs have gradually lost their identity," Blatter said. "In some cases, all players hail from abroad or even from a different continent."

Some club sides in England start as many as nine foreign players.

There was a time when European leagues limited the number of foreign players, not only how many could start a game but also ones a team could sign.

That changed in 1995. A lawsuit was filed in the European Court of Justice by a little known Belgian player, Jean Marc Bosman, against FC Liege, a second division Belgian club.

In 1990, Bosman wanted to transfer to French side Dunkerque, but FC Liege, his club, did not agree on the transfer amount and so refused his request.

Meanwhile, Bosman was demoted to the second team and his wages reduced.

Bosman filed his lawsuit and, after a few years of a tough battle, the European Court ruled that Bosman and other EU players at the end of their contract are entitled to a free transfer to any club they sign up with.

That removed the limits imposed on foreign players.

This latest battle will be fierce.

Clubs with bags of dough won't be enamoured of Blatter's attempt to change the rules. Super clubs such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid and others can buy their way to championships.

Player development is secondary. They leave that to other teams who, in order to survive, have to sell players to these Super clubs. These marquee teams and their owners only care about winning their club titles and making money. There is a constant tug-of-war between clubs and national teams. Club owners who pay big money to their players resent it when national teams take them away for competition. There is also the fear of injury which, until recently, provided no compensation for club teams.

The lack of restrictions on foreign players is bad news for national soccer powers. The English Premier League has become the destination for many top players from around the world. But with more foreign players playing on the first team, fewer young players see time on the pitch.

Blatter hopes by allowing only five foreign players to start, clubs will be forced to develop their own country's talent. With the enormous amounts of money it costs to sign a top foreign player, no owner will sign a player just to sit him on the bench.

While the Bosman ruling did little for the national soccer super-powers, it globalized soccer.

It was a wonderful decision for third-world soccer powers. With no restriction on the number of foreign players who could play at one time, savvy soccer people scoured Africa, Asia and smaller countries for top players. Back then, they could be had at bargain prices and many players made the jump to top leagues in other countries.

The fallout was almost immediate. Players from third-world soccer powers were now performing in elite leagues, among the world's best players. They, in turn, got better.

In return, it made their own national teams stronger. It's more than mere coincidence Africa and Asia have made big news in recent World Cups. It comes down to better coaching, player development and the end of soccer's protectionist policy. Blatter's intentions are good, but his proposal is going to face a rough ride.


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