May 30, 2008 / 3:00 PM / 9 years ago

Indefatigable Blatter battles for soul of football

By Mike Collett - Anlaysis

LONDON (Reuters) - Whatever else he may be to others, there is absolutely no doubt that FIFA president Sepp Blatter remains a football romantic at heart.

Were he not, he would not persevere with his plan for a laudable but controversial and anachronistic “6+5” rule to limit the number of foreign players eligible to start a match to five.

It is laudable because, at its heart, it would give a sense of national identity back to many clubs, would help local talent progress and would stop clubs buying in mediocre players.

But it appears to be unworkable in the modern world.

FIFA’s Congress passed a resolution in Sydney on Friday to continue working towards finding a legal solution to implement the idea, despite the European Union saying time and again the rule would contravene its laws on the free movement of workers.

Blatter intends to challenge the EU by claiming that sport is different from all other trades -- its “specificity” as defined by the Treaty of Lisbon -- and that law-makers could review matters in the future.

What appears to be in no doubt though is that Blatter and football cannot turn back the clock to a time when, for example, English teams fielded mainly English players or Spanish teams mainly Spanish players. He might well be fighting a battle for the soul of football, but the body has moved on.

Blatter and FIFA see the issue as being far wider than just Europe, of course, as befits the world governing body.

They are concerned that Guatemalan teams will become full of Paraguayans, Laotian teams full of Nepalese and Togolese teams full of Ghanaians.

One of Blatter’s core beliefs is that a club, whether a world giant like Manchester United or Real Madrid, or a smaller lower-league outfit scraping along on gates of a few thousand, should have some tangible link with its locality.

DEEPLY UPSET

He was deeply upset a few years ago when Belgian club Beveren field 11 players from the Ivory Coast in a match. He is unhappy that Arsenal now frequently field 11 overseas players in their starting line-up in the Premier League.

However, it is arguable whether fans agree with him.

Once a player pulls on the shirt of their favourite club, do fans in England, Spain or France really care whether they are watching are a Frenchman, a German, a Bulgarian or a Dutchman?

What they really care about is whether they are good enough to play for their club and whether they are winning matches.

For Blatter’s plan to succeed there not only has to be a change in the EU’s laws but also a change in the modern infrastructure of the game. Free movement has been in place since the Bosman ruling nearly 13 years ago.

Blatter told Congress he does not want confrontation with the EU and will apply any rule changes within the law.

Being the supreme political operator he is, he might well be able to solve what looks an insurmountable conflict.

MEDIOCRE PLAYERS

A key issue is whether the influx of overseas players stifles the development of domestic talent and there is an argument, especially in England, that it does.

The problem is not with the best players coming to the biggest clubs, but with mediocre foreign players taking places that once would have gone to players developed by the club. This is where UEFA’s home-grown rule comes in.

UEFA want clubs to include in a squad for their competitions a number of players they have developed themselves, irrespective of their nationality.

That plan has its faults and merits too but, unlike Blatter‘s, has probably a better chance of becoming accepted by Europe’s highest authorities.

Editing by Trevor Huggins

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