FIVE PLUS six equals boom time for Boro? No chance. There is a feeling in some quarters that new FIFA plans to make clubs field more local lads could suit a club like Boro who have put great stock in the academy production line, that somehow such legislation would level the playing field by preventing the cash-bloated Big Four breaking the bank in their crazed real life version of collecting Euro 2008 Panini stickers. But it won’t.
In fact such legislation would be a disaster for Boro. It would simply prompt Manchester United and Chelsea to switch the focus of their shopping sprees to domestic talent and they would ransack the Riverside for Stewie Downing, Luke Young and David Wheater, burgle Blackburn for David Bentley and ambush Aston Villa for Agbonlahor, Young and Barry rather than spend in Portugal or France.
The knock-on would be a calamity. The big four would stockpile the best of British youth leaving the rest to scrap it out over journeymen in the Championship to bump up their quota. And prices would shoot up so while Boro would initially cash-in as United and Arsenal got caught in a price war for Stewie and Wheats before paying ÃÂ£30m for the pair but that money would then need to be immediately reinvested in replacements at inflated prices. Boro would end up paying ÃÂ£6m for James Morrison and another ÃÂ£4m for Andrew Davies to make the numbers up.
Luckily, far from being the harbinger of a grand meltdown of the globalised juggernauts of the G14 and a return to a era of English lads dominating the domestic game, Sepp Blatter’s protectionist vision of the future is a complete non-starter.
It is unworkable, unacceptable to the big clubs that run the game and on the surface appears illegal under European emploment law on the free movement of labour. And despite rising xenophobia and dark rumbles of anti-immigration feeling across the continent there is no demand whatsover to limit the numbers of foreign workers in this particular industry. The clubs don’t want it, most fans don’t want it – most want big name foreign signings with European pedigree rather than lower league potential – and there is very little clamour in the press.
But Blatter’s latest outbreak of hostilities against the burgeoning global club competitions that are threatening the market position of his own World Cup brand does point up two particular issues that are deep and on-going problems within the game.
Firstly is the problem endemic within national leagues in bringing through local talent. In all the top leagues the numbers of domestic players starting games for the biggest clubs is in free-fall, with the Premiership the hardest hit of all. Only 170 of the 498 players who started matches in the top flight in 2007-08 were English – just 34.1% of the total. Last season, fewer than one in five starting line-ups would have met Blatter’s quota – Boro, Villa and West Ham are the best insulated while Arsenal and Liverpool are the furthest adrift.
At root it is partly an economic issue – as with many areas of imported labour it is simply cheaper to bring in players of a similar ability from low wage economies – but also partly a cultural one. The pressure for immediate now drive teams to scour the world for ready made talent rather than foster their own potential. And the potential is there, Boro have proved that a well stewarded academy can find and develop first team players but it takes time that some teams have not been prepared to invest. Arsenal for instance have shed from their academy Steve Sidwell, David Bentley, Juston Hoyte, Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Upson, players now trading for big money who were released on the cheap for want of a bit of patience.
The second issue it points up is the legal anomaly of football within European legislation. Blatter is currently pressing for football to be completely exempt from EU labour laws that allow free movement of labour between member states. He says the game has already been given partial exemption in other areas – the Premiership club’s were allowed to side-step anti-monopoly laws and operate as a cartel to sell TV rights collectively for example – and wants that extended. “Where there is a law it can be amended,” he said.
Blatter has been appealing to tabloid populism to outline a ‘commonsense’ position that players should be treated as extra-legal entities, special performers that should not be shackled by employment law . “Workers in Europe can circulate freely but footballers are not workers,” he said. “You cannot consider a footballer like any normal worker because you need 11 to play a match – they are more artists than workers.”
But freedom of movement and employment is at the heart of the European ideal and to change it would not be tinkering at the edges but would mean a fundamental change in political philosophy and the legal basis of the union. And no one can stop a French artist getting their crayons out in London or Berlin because they are not “normal workers.”
John McDonald, spokesman for the European Commissioner for Sport, said: “It is a non-starter as far as we are concerned,” he said. “The resolution of FIFA is to explore within the limits of the law the six plus five rule. And they can explore as much as they like but unfortunately a six plus five rule is against Community legislation.”
Besides, sport is by its nature about the pursuit of excellence, about competing at the highest possible levels and testing yourself against the best athletes, not about artificially keeping the bar low for domestic economic or political reasons or being the best in a limited arena. That is why FA chief executive, who has turned getting it wrong on the big issues into an art form, got this one spot on when he dismissed Blaltters’ central plank saying: “We believe in the meritocracy of players in the team on performance and on ability first and foremost.”
So it looks like Blatter has been thwarted – for now. As we speak he will be in his James Bond super villain style Alpine stronghold, stroking his white cat ‘Havelange’ and thinking up his next evil plan to achieve world domination. Hahahahahahahahahahhahahahaha!