Soccer Tackles Foreign Players

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Javier Mascherano (L) and Xabi Alonso (R) of Liverpool vie with Cesc Fabregas of Arsenal

A debate is raging in Europe over contentious issues like immigration and capitalism, free markets and protectionism. But the dialogue, in this case, is not about farm policy or Chinese manufacturing. It's about soccer.

On Nov. 6, the president of FIFA, which is soccer's governing body, reiterated his desire to impose a quota limiting the number of foreign players on European club rosters. Sepp Blatter said he would be lobbying the European Union to "stop the overwhelming presence of non-national players in club leagues." Under FIFA's proposal, each team could field only five foreigners in its starting side of eleven — roughly half the number powerhouse clubs like London's Arsenal and Chelsea regularly trot out. This has long been one of Blatter's pet issues. "When you have 11 foreigners in a team, this is not good for the development of football, for the education of young players," Blatter told reporters last month.

To some people, however, limiting employment based on nationality is patently discriminatory and anti-competitive. John Macdonald, a European Commission spokesman, says the proposed rule violates E.U. law. "A quota is not compatible with the fundamental freedom of movement rights that exist in the European Union," says Macdonald, who adds that restrictions based on nationality are considered "direct discrimination."

Blatter is trying to sidestep such E.U. regulations by arguing that "you cannot compare a worker with a soccer player." William Gaillard, director of communications for UEFA, the sport's European governing arm, supports Blatter's sentiment but still doesn't think the proposal is realistic. "While philosophically we agree with FIFA, in practical terms we don't see how this can be implemented," he says.

Even if FIFA's proposal is unlikely to pass muster, there's evidence that fans are behind the idea. Manish Bhasin, host of the BBC show Football Focus, says that for many English fans, a dazzling side comprised entirely of local players would be a dream come true. "To have that local connection means a lot to your average English football fan," says Bhasin. Statistics support his assessment; a recent BBC poll commissioned by Football Focus found that 56% of respondents favored quotas.

Some of the game's most celebrated coaches are split on the issue. Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United, told a fan magazine, "It's certainly not wrong that clubs should be seen to have a proportion of home-based players. You want to protect your own, and there is nothing wrong with that." Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, on the other hand, considers such ideas retrograde. He has said foreign quotas would "kill the Premier League" because it would impede the clubs' ability to find and field the best players possible. He also rejects the notion that quotas would safeguard local talent. "It won't protect the best players, it will protect the mediocre ones," Wenger has argued. "And you don't win a World Cup with mediocre players." Indeed, despite Ferguson's quota-friendly talk, he is not averse to using the best foreign talent he can find. On Wednesday, his Red Devils continued their march through the Champions League with a 4-0 thrashing of Dynamo Kiev — fueled by goals from Spanish defender Gerard Pique, Argentine striker Carlos Tevez and Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo.