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FIFA, UEFA seeking EU waiver to greatly limit foreign players.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

BRUSSELS (Monday, December 20, 1999) -- Following the European Court striking down an attempt by world soccer governing body FIFA and European governing body UEFA to limit the number of foreign players -- including European Community citizens and passport holders -- on European professional teams, the two soccer organizations are lobbying to arrange a political solution. In the meantime, one can expect an even stricter enforcement of controls on non-EU players, including Americans.

In recent days FIFA president Sepp Blatter, UEFA president Lennart Johansson and UEFA general secretary Gerhard Aigner have been here at the European Union headquarters trying to convince EU officials to support legislation to exempt soccer from EU "freedom of persons" rules.

FIFA and UEFA want to limit first division teams in all European professional leagues to no more than five foreign players on the field at any time. Called the "six-plus-five" rule, it would seek to return professional soccer in Europe to where it was before the start of the European Economic Community.

The governing bodies believe this restriction is necessary to keep smaller and poorer countries from being stripped of their good players who will go to the richer teams and more affluent leagues. The problem is that the EEC is built around the strict principal of the freedom of movement of persons. Under rigidly enforced rules, no person from any EU country may be denied employment in any other EU country because of citizenship.

In December of 1995, in a decision involving Belgian player Jean-Marc Bosman, the European Court of Justice struck down any limits on the employment of foreign soccer players so long as they are EU citizens, as well as the practice of teams to require transfer fees once such players' contracts had expired. In recent days, the Court has said there is no legal grounds on which national soccer associations can restrict the movement of players within EU countries.

FIFA and UEFA are desperate to find a way to circumvent the Bosman ruling. In recent days, Blatter met with EU sports commissioner Viviane Reding to try to convince her that soccer needs and exemption from the EU regulations. "Bosman has widened the gap between rich countries and poorer ones and between rich clubs and poorer," Blatter told reporters after the meeting. "We need some work and discussions to convince clubs that it is good for the national teams to have good local players on the local clubs. This is where Mrs. Reding has said she will take this up with her colleagues."

She seemed to agree. "We have to respect the free movement of players, but we have to find a way to reward club for their work with youngsters," Reding said. "Soccer has to survive as a social phenomenon."

All this is bad news, really bad news for players, and even worst news for American players and American fans. Already, in response to the Bosman ruling, a number of European soccer federations have imposed a limit on non-EU players allowed to dress for any match. As UEFA awaits some action in Brussels, these efforts will intensify and spread.

Actually the situation may get worse quickly. A number of non-EU countries have signed a kind of most-favored nation trade agreement with the Economic Community, and are being designated "European Economic Area" countries. These countries, and they include soccer-rich nations such as the Czech Republic and Croatia, and countries as far away as Australia, are taking the position that under these trade agreements, their citizens should be afforded EU "citizen" status for the purpose of employment. If this happens, and it well might, it will put even more pressure on non-EU players, including Americans.

Of course, for Americans the absolutely worst news would be if Blatter and Johansson get their waiver. Then Americans would have to compete with players from every other country for spots on European teams. Except for the occasional Kasey Keller, Americans would all but disappear from European soccer.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears weekly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at SoccerWag1@aol.com.

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