The Infamous Quota System Debate

The debate over a quota on foreign players has been raging since the late 90s when the ‘œforeign invasion’ first began. English football has indeed been blessed by the presence of the likes of Cantona, Zola, Vialli, Bergkamp, Schmeichel and even Roy Keane, Ronnie Whelan and some might say Ryan Giggs. But when is enough enough and what does ‘œenough’ really mean in this context?

When Jean-Marc Bosman blew open the barn door allowing football players to enjoy the economic freedoms of workers throughout the EU, he would hardly have imagined that barely 10 years on, European leagues would be home to much of the World’s top talents and that leagues like the Premier League would have over 60% non-English players. The controversy that the Bosman ruling sparked has grown into a full scale ideological war, pitting the nationalists on one side and the football purists on the other. Nationalists like Steve Coppell have spoken out recently about the need to implement a quota system in order to improve the English national side, while purists like Arsene Wenger argue that football ought to be free of such bothersome regulations, allowing players to compete on an equal footing regardless of nationality.

Sadly, the ruling bodies who might otherwise have regulated this debate, seem to have slept in beds on either side of the controversy. Sepp Blatter’s administration has seen the world’s game commercialized and packaged as a product to be sold to markets across the globe, distributed like a commodity and sold for the highest profit. Unfortunately, people like Mr. Blatter apparently wish to have their cake and eat it, having recently voiced his desire to have no more than 5 foreign players in a starting XI and arguing that footballers ‘œare more artists than workers’.

The rules as they are place the onus on developing youngsters primarily on the shoulders of club teams. Unfortunately, such a responsibility presents football clubs with the arduous task of balancing the financial needs of their shareholders and the desires of their local fan-base, some of whom have strong nationalist leanings on this issue. The cold reality of football in the 21st century however, is that clubs, though not all publicly traded entities with a legal responsibility to advance the fiduciary interests of shareholders as their number one priority, must pursue policies which will ensure their financial strength both in the short- and long-term. With the rapidly diverging financial consequences of immediate success, football clubs must find the most expedient short-term solutions, and they are more likely to invest in talented (and often crucially – cheaper) foreign players to meet these needs rather than investing in the long-term future of local youth. A perfect example of club’s ingenuity when it comes to maximizing short-term results with minimal investment is the current trend of importing 12 year old players to circumvent UEFA’s ‘œhome grown’ player rule.

With this reality in mind, the debate surrounding the quota system endorsed by nationalists and the ‘œfree trade’ argument put forth by purists like Wenger takes on a new light. And yet, despite their differences, it is without a doubt that both sides of this ideological war would agree on two common goals: maintaining a high standard of football while simultaneously increasing the number of domestic players represented in football clubs. The issue should then be framed in terms of whether or not a quota system is an effective way to achieve both goals.

It is my view that enforcing a quota would not accomplish both goals simply because in economic terms, with any quota system the consumer surplus is always reduced, as inferior goods ‘“ in this case inferior players ‘“ are forced on consumers ‘“ in this case clubs and supporters ‘“ who would other wise import higher quality goods ‘“ players ‘“ often at a fraction of the cost.

plIn the case of England, until there is a sufficient supply of top quality English players, artificially increasing the number of English players represented at club level would only reduce the competitive standard of the premiership because this would force quality players out to give English players more representation (if the supply of quality English players was not a problem, their prices wouldn’t be ridiculously high and teams wouldn’t be forced to import quality foreigners).

In England, the foreign players imported on average appear to have far better technical skills, creativity and flair than do their English rivals perhaps because in England, players are raised on tough, hard, lung-busting, strong tackling physical football, while their foreign counterparts see the game as art and focus on improving their technique and skill.
However, with the influx of foreign players into the premiership and the rapid improvement in modern physical training techniques, many foreign players have also added a strong physical dimension to their game in addition to their technical skills, while fewer English players have learned the technical aspect of the game (there are a lot more Joey Bartons than there are Joe Coles). As a result, English players are fairing worse than their foreign counterparts because their advantage in strength is disappearing, while the gap in technical ability is as large as ever. Forcing the likes of Carlton Palmer or Steve Sidwell to replace the likes of Didier Drogba and Xabi Alonso in the name of improving the English game is hardly a step in the right direction.

It would be synonymous with the U.S enforcing a quota on car imports because General Motors and Ford cars were inferior to Toyota and Honda with the expectation that this quota system would somehow force GM and Ford into making better cars. Most of us would laugh at this idea, knowing that consumers would ultimately suffer by having to buy inferior cars, and GM and Ford would have no incentive to improve their quality since the regulators would have legislated a market for them to sell their inferior goods.

Currently, competition from foreign players is revealing a glaring inadequacy in the English youth system. The club youth systems aren’t producing enough quality English youngsters capable of competing with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben, and other young foreigners who have thrilled premiership fans from an early age. The fact that youngsters play more competitive games in Spain and abroad than they do in England might also contribute to the disparity (Rafa has previously complained about there not being enough reserve matches and called for a reserve league like that in Spain).

So while the influx of foreign players may have highlighted the problem, it is not the source. Until the FA and sport authorities can design a solution to solve this problem from the ground up, it will persist – and a quota system would just be a band aid that would cover up the problem while not solving it. I believe a national youth system would yield a better solution, thereby taking the onus of youth development from the short-term focused football clubs to a central football authority. Sir Trevor Brooking has put forward just such a proposal only to receive a luke-warm reception, and while his idea may be debatable, one thing is for certain: a quota system to solve the supply problem of local representation would be like shutting the barn door after Jean-Marc Bosman has stolen the horse.