Player Movement, Club Football, and the National Game

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The changing face of club football and its impact on the national game

The club level has always been viewed as a fundamental aspect of the sport of football, but not until recently has club football seriously challenged national teams for supremacy in the global game. With the rampant globalization of the sport, club football has become more accessible and profitable than ever. However, the rapid ascent of the private market and the subsequent influx of player migration have been linked to the deterioration of national team quality and fan support. Is it possible, as some have suggested, that the current state of club football in unsustainable if the national game is to be ensured opulence? The upcoming World Cup in South Africa has provided additional context for the debate of footballers’ growing allegiances to clubs over countries and it has intensified the discourse between football’s progressives and purists.

The Bosman Ruling and how it changed modern football

Since its inception, professional football has enticed players to cross international borders in search of the most lucrative contracts. Professional leagues manifested from a working class diversion into a legitimate career option, promptly placing money a player’s top concern. England, for example, welcomed the arrival of Scottish and Irish players who were in search of the largest contracts. Dealing with the presence of foreigners varied from league to league; their regulation was most often left to the discretion of the nation’s football governing body. The presence of foreign players in domestic leagues brought to light the paradox their existence created. Some feared that the foreigners took roster spots of nationals, ultimately hurting the development of the national team. Others figured national team members would benefit most by playing in the highest quality leagues that were able to attract top talent from all over the world. Regardless, most domestic leagues implemented some sort of foreign player quotas with the aim to protect the growth of local players. The English notably took a major step in the restriction of foreign players with its “3+2 Rule”, which limited each squad to a maximum of three non-indigenous players, with up to two more assimilated players 1. Other European powerhouses instituted similar policies. The Italian Football Federation had at one point banned players who were not eligible for the national team from playing in Italian leagues 2.

The aforementioned policies went largely unchallenged until the geopolitical structure of Europe began to transform, once again highlighting the inherent ties between football and politics. The issue of foreign player migration became more convoluted with the foundation of the European Community in the early 1990s, which provided the foundation for today’s European Union. Interestingly enough, it was a shift in the political structure of Europe and not the Football Associations that gave players a platform to challenge the established foreign player quotas. The development of the European Community eventually emphasized the dichotomy between the ideals of the Community and the actions of its member nation’s Football Associations. It was contested that the previously discussed Italian domestic football policy failed to act in accordance with the European Community’s Treaty of Rome, since the rule was explicitly divergent with the Treaty’s provisions regarding the freedom of movement of persons 3. The Attorney General reinforced FIFA’s and UEFA’s belief that foreign player quotas were legitimate and warranted when he ruled in favor of the defense. He reflected the widespread sentiment that issues of football, including cases of restrictions based on the grounds of nationality, were purely sporting considerations and were therefore not applicable to the guidelines of the Treaty 4.

Jean Marc Bosman, Sepp Blatter's worst nightmare

Sepp Blatter's worst nightmare: Jean Marc Bosman (photo courtesy of the BBC).

Belgian footballer Jean Marc Bosman embarked on his own legal journey when his club, RC Liege, refused to grant him international clearance for a transfer to the French league in July 1990. What ensued has dramatically changed the composition of contemporary football. Jean Marc Bosman argued that Belgian Football Association’s rules were illegal according to the EC treaty. Bosman specifically cited the “freedom of movement between member states” and the “imposition of restrictive practices and abuse of a dominant position” in his case against the Belgian FA 5. After bringing his case to the Belgian Civil Court, a November 1990 ruling allowed Bosman to continue his playing career in France if he so chose. Such a ruling prohibiting the restriction of player movement was unprecedented and posed a major conflict of interest with sporting policies at the time. It was for this reason that UEFA appealed on behalf of the Belgian FA, which got the case moved to the European Court of Justice. Advocate General Carl Lenz focused on whether UEFA’a rules violated European law. In 1995, the court made a monumental ruling that resonated in all of the member states. The court deemed restrictions on foreign players unlawful, effectively prohibiting leagues from implementing quotas for foreign players. Lenz noted that “no deep cogitation is required to reach the conclusion that the rules on foreign players are of a discriminatory nature…They represent an absolute classic case of discrimination on the grounds of nationality” 6. Where the Court of Justice differed from past rulings was the fact that football, while a sporting matter, should be construed as employment just like any other job, and therefore is subject to all European labor laws. The cornerstone of these laws ensures that all workers are free to move about the European members states. The Bosman ruling was a landmark case that mandates the free movement of footballers, and its ramifications are felt more strongly today than ever, though not without strong opposition.

Despite a clear unwillingness to change, UEFA and its subsidiaries eradicated their quotas under the pressure of sanctions and fines. The Bosman Ruling’s impact was felt almost immediately. Prior to the ruling, foreign players made up a mere 20% of the English Premier League. This figure rose to over 60% by the start of the 2007 season 7.

So what’s the problem with foreign footballers?

It is undeniable that foreigners have raised the quality of play all over Europe, especially in the Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A. But is the ubiquitous presence of foreigners really damaging the national game? FIFA seems to think so, as evident by its proposed “6+5 Rule”. The rule, in its current form, would force clubs to start six players who are eligible for the national team of the nation where the club is located, capping the number of foreigners on the pitch to five 8. FIFA has expressed the issues foreign player quotas are intended to address in a media release. The primary goal is to protect national team development. Even though this idea has been present for over a decade, England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008 helped the movement gain traction and enter the mainstream. Essentially, the idea is that limiting the number of foreigners a team can field will entice (some would say coerce) teams to look at local talent. Such an action is accompanied by an irrefutable consequence: the diminished quality of domestic leagues. If foreign players are being pushed aside for mediocre nationals, the quality of the league will plummet. Even those who feel that national development takes precedence over club football would then have to be concerned of just how well young British (or Italian, etc.) talent will develop while competing against a diluted competition pool absent of foreign players.

A secondary goal of the “6+5 Rule” is to increase parity at the club level. The idea is that top clubs like Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, etc. are able to swallow up the top talent which widens the achievement gap between big and small clubs. With a basic understanding of the laws of supply and demand, it is clear that foreign player quotas will do very little to increase competitiveness at the club level. A quota system will shrink the pool domestic clubs can draw players from and will therefore radically inflate the price of players who are eligible for the national team. In short, nothing will stop the richest clubs from buying the best national talent, maintaining the divergence between small and large clubs.

Follow this link for a short video on FIFA’s struggle to circumvent the European Union.

Outspoken Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has voiced his issues with player quotas restricting the movement of foreigners. It should be noted that it is not uncommon for Arsenal to field a team without a single English Player. Wenger is one of the many critics of quotas, and has made no secret about his disdain for such policies.

[The 6+5 Rule] would kill the Premier League…It would certainly no longer be the best league in the world. I would not be happy if somebody told me that I have to say to a player: ‘Sorry, you have the ability to play but you weren’t born in the right place’ 9

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger can't believe FIFA wants player quotas (photo courtesy of the Daily Telegraph).

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger can't believe FIFA wants player quotas (photo courtesy of the Daily Telegraph).

Despite FIFA’s desire to implement this legislation, the biggest hurdle to be cleared is that of European law. The European commission has repeatedly struck down any talk of the proposal, with a spokesman saying, “The implementation by FIFA of a 6+5 rule in the European Union would violate EU law…The Commission is not considering any change to allow FIFA to push forward this idea. FIFA is aware of this fact…a system of quotas based on nationality, as proposed by Blatter, is illegal under the current acquis and will remain illegal under the new Treaty” 10.

Europe is not the only place dealing with quota issues. Below is a clip of former English player Paul Masefield discussing Malaysia’s recent exclusion of foreign players in its leagues.

Player migration and national team support: Is there a connection?

Perhaps the presence of foreign players is benign towards the development of a country’s national team. However, some have suggested that the current state of club football does not bode well for the future of national competitions, including the revered World Cup. With the popularization of the modern game, players are moving all over Europe for record transfer fees. With so much money at stake, a player’s role in the national team has become almost an afterthought. As English writer Nick Hornby points out, club football has spoiled the world’s players. From his observation, a growing number of professional footballers no longer aspire to play in the World Cup, and those from weaker footballing nations construe the World Cup as an “unattractive alternative” to a well deserved vacation 11. Obviously this is not an accurate reflection of every player’s perspective, but it does fit in well with the current climate of football.

Recently, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was asked to give his thoughts on English player Theo Walcott’s chances on making England’s World Cup roster. In a clear expression of his opinion that club takes precedence over country, Wenger angrily replied:

For f***’s sake, the World Cup is in June. Is he on holiday until June 11? You cannot be serious. For me, the big season is with Arsenal, not at the World Cup. We do not pay players to go to the World Cup. We pay them to do well for Arsenal…The first pride of a man is to do well for the guy who pays you in life, not to go to the World Cup 12

While the popularity of the club game has been growing wildly, some have noticed a decrease in support for the national team. Quite frankly, younger generations are less likely to exhume the same fervor for their national side than the older generations, and it can be convincingly argued that club football is to blame. Nick Hornby provides an interesting take on this phenomenon:

Football in England has changed over the past ten years: almost all the best players in our domestic league-and, indeed, many of the worst-come from overseas, and children who enjoy the sport are not suddenly going to switch allegiance from their favorite players just because they play for a different country during the World Cup 13

A young English fan: the last of a dying breed? Some seem to think so (photo courtesy of the Daily Telegraph).

A young English fan: the last of a dying breed? Some seem to think so (photo courtesy of the Daily Telegraph).

This observation opens the debate of how the migration of players has transformed club football, for better or worse. Are we truly in jeopardy of losing the significance of national football? This is unlikely and perhaps a little dramatic; however the impending World Cup provides the largest forum to have the discussion of club football’s role in the sport of football. Football has unquestionably grown from a pastime into a global business culture. The question remains: do we let football continue on its natural progression, or introduce policies to curb its growth to protect tradition?

  1. Fordyce, Tom. “10 years since Bosman.” BBC 14 Dec 2005: n. pag. Web. 11 Nov 2009. <>.
  2. McArdle, David. “Football and the European Union after Bosman .” Football Studies. 3.2 (2000): 44. Print.
  3. McArdle, David. p. 44.
  4. McArdle, David. p. 45
  5. McArdle, David. p. 46
  6. McArdle, David. p. 49
  7. Verbon, Harrie A.A. “Regulation of Mobile Football Talent.” Tilburg University and CESifo, Munich. (2008): 2. Print.
  8. Ennis, Darren. “Blow for Blatter as EU rejects ‘6+5’ plan to limit foreign players.” Independent 09 May 2008, Print.
  9. Doyle, Paul. “Blatter’s foreign quota plan would kill Premier League, warns Wenger.” The Guardian. 06 Oct 2007. Web. 1 Dec 2009. <>
  10. Chowdhury, Saj. “Blatter faces player quota veto.” BBC 20 Feb 2008. <>.
  11. Hornby, Nick. “We Are the World.” New Yorker 15 Jul 2002: n. pag. Web. 25 Nov 2009. <>.
  12. Law, Matt. “Arsene Wenger wants more from Theo Walcott.” Daily Express. 24 Nov 2009. Web. 2 Dec 2009. <>.
  13. Hornby, Nick. “We Are the World.” New Yorker 15 Jul 2002: n. pag. Web. 25 Nov 2009. <>.

2 thoughts on “Player Movement, Club Football, and the National Game

  1. Bianca D'Souza

    To me, it is always interesting to see how large of a role money plays in soccer. Being human, it is our natural instinct to want to obtain fame, wealth, and status, and I think that is part of the reason that people rarely play soccer at any professional level for the fun of it anymore, even children on competitive traveling teams. One idea that is expressed in this article that I have not explored before is the idea of the private market, and it would interest me to do some more research. With player migration and immigration, it also interests me to see if supply and demand have anything to do with player salaries and how that affects national versus club teams.

  2. emmanuel peter

    Pls I have these talented wonderkid in my team here in nigeria that can even play more than messi, bt the problem here is that no good connection to take him out to big clubs were he can show his best rather politics seems to be the order of the day, while this talented players wastes without a good sponsor.. Age 17 years old. Pls interested clubs should notify me. He is a utility player up front. Phone number- 07064568106


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