soccer  Soccerfutbol



Complete archive of Robert Wagman's It Seems to Me.

It Seems To Me . . .

New European rules could benefit MLS.

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, July 28, 1999) -- Opportunities for Americans to play in Europe are narrowing because of decisions by the European Court, regulations being imposed by various professional leagues and national federations, and by proposed new regulations from world governing body FIFA itself. But while these changes are already limiting opportunities for Americans to play in Europe, they could well become a significant boon to Major League Soccer.

In recent days, we have seen United States goalkeeper Kasey Keller struggle to find a new team, his compatriot Brad Friedel looking like the odd man out at Liverpool despite very credible performances last season, former Colorado Rapids keeper Marcus Hahnemann leave MLS to join Fulham in the English First Division (actually the second division behind the Premier League), University of Virginia standout Chris Albright sign with MLS, and Ecuadorian Ariel Graziani also join MLS. Each of these events, while unrelated, have much to do with the new rules.

This all started with the European Court ruling that an obscure Belgian player, John Bosman, was free to move to any team he wanted within the countries of the European Union. Previously, clubs retained the rights to a player even after a contract had expired, and were able to extract a transfer fee, or prevent a transfer. The so-called "Bosman Ruling" effectively created free agency for European soccer players, allowing no restrictions to movement within the teams in European Union countries.

In practical terms this has meant that rich, prosperous leagues like Englandís Premiership, Italyís Serie A, and Spainís Primera Division can raid teams in lesser leagues, those unable or unwilling to pay sky high player salaries. Under the law, there is little that soccer authorities, or even FIFA can do. But they are trying, and this is where Americans are being hurt.

While football associations and professional leagues cannot control the movement of European players, they can control non-EU players. In many countries including Britain, Spain and Italy, and likely everywhere by next year, teams are limited to three non-EU players in the 16 they dress for any match.

By any objective measure Kasey Keller is among the top dozen, or so, goalkeepers in the world today. With his contract up at Leicester City, Keller wanted to experience the culture and soccer of another country, one with a warmer climate than England. It should have been no problem with a dozen clubs bidding for his services. But what he found was that he was not in competition for a position just from other goalkeepers, but also for limited roster spots from non-EU strikers, midfielders and defenders.

Spanish League power Mallorca needed a goalkeeper, and Keller would have been a perfect fit. But it did not have an available slot for a non-EU player. Now it appears Keller will sign with newly promoted Rayo Vallecano, but it has been a tough decision for the Madrid club because it has already signed Angolan striker Quinzinho, and is negotiating with a number of other non-European players.

Brad Friedel continues under contract at Liverpool. But in the offseason the team signed Czech-national Vladimir Smicer, and Swiss-national Stephane Henchoz. With Patrik Berger already in the line-up, the team had to go out and sign two Dutch goalkeepers, because it cannot afford to dress a non-European keeper.

Hahnemann has moved to Fulham only because he carries a German passport, thanks to his grandparents. He could not have moved to Fulham as an American, because it could not afford the luxury of dressing a non-EU backup keeper. Moreover, he could not have qualified to play anywhere in Britain, at any level, because he lacks national team playing time and would not have qualified for a work permit. But as a "German," he is considered an EU player and cannot be denied a work permit.

Even experienced, very good non-EU players are having difficulty finding places on European sides. Arsenal wanted to sign Brazilian standout Silvinho. But he didnít have enough Brazilian national team match experience, and there was little room on Arsenalís crowded roster for another non-EU player. Then the club realized that because Silvinhoís grandparents were Portuguese, he had dual citizenship. Brought to England as a Portuguese, he has no problems with work permits or roster places.

In our letters section, writer John Lee asks why Chris Albright signed with MLS and not with some European club. The simple answer to a somewhat complex situation is that as an American, without the ability to claim some kind of European citizenship, Albrightís opportunities in Europe are very limited. A Landon Donovan at age 17 can afford to go to Germany and be assigned to the Third Division on a developmental squad. When you are 20 or 21, as is Albright, you need to get playing and practice time at a higher level. Those opportunities are now limited for non-EU players.

Which brings us to Ariel Graziani and MLS. He likely signed with MLS at least in part because his options in Europe were limited. As the doors begin to close on non-EU players in Europe, especially in the top divisions, more and more will start looking at the U.S. and MLS. If the League opens its pocketbook so it will be competitive with the pay scale of the second divisions of the soccer powers like England, Italy and Spain, and the first divisions of lesser countries, MLS can start signing younger and better South American and African players.

But a proposed FIFA regulation could limit some in MLS. It has been widely reported that what FIFA is proposing is limiting all professional teams, world-wide, to five foreign players on the pitch together at any one time. Actually that is not exactly was is being proposed. The rule would require that at any time, at least six players on the pitch must be qualified to play on the national team of the country in which they are playing.

This is not quite the same as saying only five foreign players. In MLS there are a number of players who are not U.S. citizens, but who are not classified by MLS as "foreign" because they are resident aliens under U.S. law and possess green cards. Under the FIFA rule, they would be classified as foreign.

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

©Copyright 1999 All Rights Reserved