27 May 2008

FIFA’s 6+5 rule, a new low for England, and Liverpool FC

Headline news on BBC Sport shows both FIFA’s insistence in pushing a 6+5 rule as well as a study stating that Premiership teams fielded an all-time low number of English players this past season.

My silence thanks to a lack of topics during the past week, coupled with a fervent dislike of the 6+5 rule (plus a fondness for poking and prodding Blatter’s FIFA), means I’m using these two stories to hit at a larger issue. Fair warning, this is long.

I guess I’ll start with FIFA.

For those unaware, FIFA has been trying to cut down on foreign players since the beginning of Blatter’s reign. The newest manifestation of this pursuit is the aforementioned “6+5 rule,” which looks to be endorsed by FIFA’s Congress later this week.

As demonstrated by the name, the rule moves towards a goal of at least six “homegrown” players in every club side, leaving no more than five foreigners. According to Blatter, it would be implemented step-by-step, with four required in 2010/11, five in 2011/12, and six by 2012.

It’s worth noting that there are differences between FIFA and UEFA’s definition of homegrown players. FIFA’s means those eligible for that country’s national team while UEFA’s means those trained a club as teenagers. As Reuters explains:

“Under rules introduced by UEFA three years ago, home grown players are not necessarily nationals of the countries they are playing in.

If a player spends at least three years at a club or in an adopted national association between the age of 15 and 21 he is termed as home grown.”

Loath as I am to prefer anything Platini suggests, I’m far more in favor of his version if one has to take hold, mainly because it would protect teams like Liverpool who scour the globe for young players and train them in their academies. But it also contravenes the exact point Blatter is trying to make: FIFA wants club leagues to be primarily made up of players from that country and Platini’s plan doesn’t do that. Players like Fabregas, who joined Arsenal at 16, would qualify as homegrown. Although article after article, especially those put out by FIFA’s press shop, states that Platini would go along with FIFA’s plan.

According to FIFA, the rule wouldn’t violate European law because it doesn’t restrict the free movement of workers. Clubs are still able to buy as many foreigners as they like, but they’d have to have six players on the pitch eligible for that country’s national team.

Of course, the European Union has been hinting differently and earlier this month the European Parliament voted 518-49 against the FIFA proposal, with a majority backing UEFA’s proposal (and we in the US complain about Congress getting involved in sports).

This news comes hand-in-hand with a study stating the number of English players in the Premier League is at an all-time low, and it seems more than coincidence that both stories came out on the same day.

According to the report, there are 37 less English players in the Premiership than there were seven years ago (170 compared to 207), down 21 from last season. It is a new low for Englishmen, with the former mark coming in 02/03 with 179 (numbers had slowly risen in the four years following that nadir). And aside from the usual ‘woe is England, woe is John Bull' overtones, it’s an interesting piece.

Unsurprisingly, Arsenal has the lowest number of English players, with only .34 (a third of a player?) on average in their starting line-up. Liverpool comes in next with 2.34, and West Ham is the highest with 6.61 (Villa are the only other team above six with 6.42). On average it’s 4.038 Englishmen per side throughout the league.

And it’s pervasive from top to bottom in the league. Contrary to my expectations, two of the relegated teams (Reading and Birmingham City) are in the ‘bottom of the table,’ with the 7th and 8th lowest numbers respectively (Fulham, who finished 17th, are even worse, barely above Liverpool with 2.42 per game).

One of the main reasons that the Premier League has less and less English players is that there’s little value in it. Look at the exorbitant amounts paid for Englishmen: Darren Bent for £16m, £16m for Carrick, £18m for Hargreaves, and £10m for an unproven (but admittedly talented) Walcott. You can even see it in the price quoted for the English players supposedly coming to or going from Liverpool this summer: £15m for Bentley or Barry or Crouch? You’re having a laugh.

That’s why teams from top to bottom are searching for foreigners; when you’re shopping on a budget (which at least 17 out of 20 teams are, and I’m including Liverpool in that), buying English is the absolute opposite of cost-effective.

And it’s little coincidence that Manchester United has the most English players out of the big four. They have the money to spend £16m on Carrick and £18m on Hargreaves just as they can spend a combined £30m on Anderson and Nani or something like £27m for Rooney at the tender age of 18. Chelsea has that sort of money too, and you can see it in the premiums they pay for English players (Cole, Cole, and Wright-Phillips for example), but having an English spine is one of the least of Abramovich’s concerns.

Meanwhile, it’s little surprise that the two teams trying to keep up with United and Chelsea financially, Arsenal and Liverpool, have the fewest English players.

Despite the recent fortunes of the national team, which I’m certain was the impetus behind this study, I don’t necessarily agree that it’s bad for football. It’s arguably been a good thing for club football, evidenced by the fact the Premiership spins as much money worldwide as it does. Of course it’s also evidenced by the fact I’m writing about it despite being an ocean away, and the sustained interest in the league from countries around the world.

With the dearth of English players in the first team sides, you’d expect to see similar in the reserves and academies of Premier League clubs. And Liverpool should be a prime example of it given Benitez’s worldwide scouting network, an influx of young foreigners, an emphasis on using young players in the reserves, and the need to be cost-efficient with player transfers. But the disparity isn’t as big as I’d imagined before looking at the numbers.

Not counting players who spent the majority of the season on loan, there are currently 6 reserve team players from England, 4 from Spain, 3 from Hungary, 2 from Argentina, and 1 each from France, Holland, Morocco, Paraguay, Scotland.

I realize the reserves are fairly fluid, but for argument’s sake, here’s a usual starting line-up: Martin; Darby, San Jose, Huth, Insua; El Zhar, Plessis, Spearing, Flynn; Nemeth, Brouwer. That team wouldn’t qualify according to FIFA’s plan, with only Martin, Darby, Spearing and Flynn eligible for England.

The Under-18 team from the Academy (I’m counting those who played more than 5 games for the U-18s) contains 11 from England, 3 from Ireland, 2 from Sweden, and 1 each from Australia, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, and Scotland. (FYI: There are a number of players who played for both the Reserves and Under-18s. I’m counting them in the team for which they played the most games.) It’s more multinational than it was under Heighway, but the vast majority are still from the Home Nations, if not eligible for England.

As for those on loan (Anderson, Antwi, Carson, Guthrie, Hammill, Hobbs, Roque, and Threlfall), six are English, with Antwi Ghanian and Roque Spanish.

I realize Liverpool is an “extreme” example, and of course recognize the oddity of an American writing about this from the other side of the ocean, but those numbers in the youth set-up don’t appear overwhelming. England is still the most represented, with the Academy having far more English players. But at the same time, Liverpool are adequately planning for the future by poaching (yes, poaching) young foreign talent so they don’t have to pay ridiculous fees in a few years.

Look, regardless of supporting Liverpool, I don’t believe instituting player quotas is going to fix the problems with the English national team. That needs to be done by improving grass-roots football, aiding and improving lower-league clubs’ academies so they can identify and nurture young English talent, and even re-opening an FA Center of Excellence, such as the much-discussed Burton National Football Centre.

But England also needs to understand that with the globalization of sport and the increasing quality coming out of the Americas and Africa that the country isn’t an automatic world-beater anymore, if they ever were. And, despite my nationality, I say that as an England fan for nearly 20 years now, more than two-thirds of my life. Plus, as pointed out by a Premiership statement in the BBC article, England struggled to qualify for a number of tournaments in the 70s and 80s, when this certainly wasn't an issue in the old Division 1.

The FIFA rule might narrow the gap between the ‘big four’ and the rest of the league, which is one of the intended goals of the directive. But given United and Chelsea’s ability to pay whatever they want for English talent (and Arsenal will be there soon given the increasing match-day profits thanks to the Emirates), it could also create a greater disparity between the big and small clubs.

More clubs would lose talent like, to make a cheeky example, Gareth Barry, a club captain for Villa who’s been rumored to be joining Liverpool. And the smaller clubs would be further punished by their inability to pay the higher costs for English talent. I may be an idiot when it comes to economics, but I think I have a grasp of supply and demand, and I’m pretty sure it’s applicable here.

Admittedly, something needs to be done to lessen the gap between the big four and the other 16, as well as something to improve the fortunes of the English national team. But I firmly believe FIFA’s quota will do neither. Creating a further premium on English talent while restricting the number of foreigners any side can play probably won’t increase competition the Premiership at all. I hate to suggest American “remedies” for European sport, but either a salary cap or a luxury tax/redistribution of profits would do far more to increase parity.

And might not even help the national team, given those players could be up against a diluted Premiership. Teams from top to bottom, from Arsenal and Liverpool to relegation candidates, would suffer, and those staring for the English national side would be up against lesser competition. You can’t tell me that players like Gerrard, Terry, et al don’t improve by playing with and against the world’s best week in and week out. Players who deserve to play in the Premiership and players who deserve to play for England still get their shot for both big and small clubs in the league.

To make a long story short, please, Blatter, Platini, FIFA, etc, keep your politics out of football.


Ace Cowboy said...

Well said. I'll say it even simpler: This is a seriously dumb idea.

r1ooooo said...

Hi there.. I like your blog and i wonder if you mind to exchange links? Thanks and have a good day.

Mike Georger said...

and stevie wants barry officially now (plus their chemistry against the usa was awesome)

happy birthday stevie!