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It Seems To Me . . .

Britain toughens stance on foreign eligibility.

By Robert Wagman

First of two stories

WASHINGTON (Wednesday, July 7, 1999) -- Consider, if you will, the following line-up from Englandís Premier League: goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, (Manchester United); defenders Dennis Irwin (Manchester United), Win Jonk (Sheffield Wednesday), Jaap Stam (Manchester United), and Marcel Desailly (Chelsea); midfielders Norbeto Solano (Newcastle), Marc Overmars (Arsenal), Patrick Vieri (Arsenal), and David Ginola (Tottenham); and forwards Dwight Yorke (Manchester United) and Nicholas Anelka (Arsenal).

I understand that Alan Shearer, David Beckham, Michael Owen, Sol Campbell, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, etc. are missing from this list. My purpose here is not to get into a huge argument over who is slightly better than whom. But you certainly would not be considered crazy if you were to argue this lineup represents the 11 best players, by position, this past season in Britain's top professional division.

What is the one common denominator of this all-star 11? Not one is British or eligible to play for England in international competition. Britain's professional leagues are becoming inundated by foreign players. Some of the statistics are eye opening. Twenty-five years ago the only player in the British first division from outside the British Isles was Bermudan Clyde Best. Today there are 205 foreign players in the Premiership. Fully half of last season's 20 Premiership clubs, had 20-man rosters that were more than half foreign.

By one account, only five of the 20 could have assembled a starting 11, and a substitutes bench, comprised of all British players (and three of those five would have not dressed some of their better players in order to assemble an all-British side). When Manchester United made its miraculous comeback in injury time to win the Champions League crown over Bayern Munich, only three of its players on the field were British.

This foreign influx is being cited as a major factor in the mixed international results the British national team has gotten recently. It is said to be the primary cause (Michael Owen notwithstanding) for the apparent lack of development of top-flight young British players. British football fans are being whipped into a frenzy by the traditionally xenophobic British media. The Football Association is starting to respond, and the British government itself is right behind. The bottom line is that doors are quickly closing to foreigners, including Americans, wanting to play in England.

The problem is not with the international all-stars like Schmeichal or Anelka or Ginola or Jonk. Everyone in Britain realizes their presence has raised the quality of the Premiership to new heights. What is truly bothering officials at the F.A., the Professional Footballers Association (the union representing players), the Football Managers Association (the coaches association), and some in the government, is how pervasive the importation of players has become. Last season there were 505 foreign players in the British professional leagues. Of the 92 clubs -- going down through the lowly fourth division -- only two have no foreign players.

The soccer public seems to be of two minds. Fans of specific clubs want to see their teams win even if that means importing talent from where-ever. But at the same time they decry the erosion of the British game, and the lack of new young players with star potential. Particularly grating to the PFA is how many foreign players are sitting on benches or playing on reserve sides all through the professional divisions. They see this as an attempt by greedy club owners to import cheap players at the expense of British players, especially younger players.

"Football should have a united front to say that we need to protect our domestic talent, not just in England but all over Europe," said PFA deputy chief executive Brendon Batson.

The British government, through the powerful Department of Education and Employment (DEE) has responded by announcing a series of changes in the criteria used to determine whether a foreign player will be granted the all-important visa\work permit. From now on, says the DEE, a foreign player (without an EU passport) will need to have played in 75 percent of their country's "competitive" international matches over the past two calendar years. It is assumed that "friendlies" will not be considered "competitive" under the definition.

In addition, DEE will taking into consideration the player's country of origin. Although it was not put this way, players from countries ranked below 40 or 50 in the FIFA world rankings need not apply. Both the PFA and the League Managers Association (which is also concerned with the influx on non-British coaches) applaud the new tougher standards. LMA chairman Frank Clark said, "We are all for bringing in higher caliber players. But anything that makes it easier to bring in average foreign players worries us because of the number playing in the Premiership, purely from the England team's point of view."

While the PFA is happy the standards are being toughened, it is nervous about two other changes. From now on, says the DEE, it will not take into consideration how much the prospective player is going to be paid. It has been assumed in the past that if a Premiership team was willing to part with millions of pounds a year, the player, by definition, was worthy of a work permit. Now, the millionaire player will be held to the same national team standard as the lowest-paid player applying for a permit to play in the second division.

But the PFA is concerned that the move will lead to the "exploitation" of imported players at the expense of young domestic talent. "The wages criteria is there to make sure that they are top quality players and to say they won't take wages into account could easily lead to players coming in, who are no better but merely cheaper," PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor said. "It could also exploit those players - particularly eastern European or African players - so that they are not paid the going rate for the job here either."

Even more troubling to the PFA is the decision by DEE to no longer require the current post-arrival 12-month permit review for foreign players. From now on, once a player has a work visa, he can keep it so long as someone wants to employ him. In the past, a player had to appear in a high percentage of matches to get a permit renewal. It would appear that United States goalkeeper Brad Friedel is an early beneficiary of this new stance.

The Football Association itself is also responding to this perception that foreign players are stunting the growth of domestic players. By law it cannot restrict the employment of any player from a European Community country, but starting this year it is going to strictly enforce a limit of three non-EU foreign players on any team's roster, be it a Premier League team, or a lowly fourth division club.

In our next column, we will see how these changes will effect American players wanting to play in England. We will also examine how a proposed FIFA rule change might not only negatively effect Americans wanting to play elsewhere in Europe, but also might impact Major League Soccer rosters.

Robert Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at

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