As World Soccer magazne’s Brian Glanville puts it, “There is no debate. The battle with the European Union was long lost, however gallantly fought for years at UEFA by the late Artemio Franchi. The EU rules, alas, clearly state that there be freedom of movement for all workers across the countries of the Union. And footballers, whatever some fans may think of a weekend, are classified as workers.”
Rules, though, can be changed.
In a wide-ranging interview in the Scotsman today, David Taylor (UEFA’s general secretary), stated that the rules could be changed.
Taylor seems to hint there might be a way around the European legislation that would, at present, scupper such a rule. “We’re talking to the European Union and to national governments at the highest level on matters like this,” says Taylor, a lawyer by profession. “For the first ever time in the European Union reform treaty, there’s a reference to sport and a reference to the special characteristics of football. Now, we have to define what those special characteristics are, but we want to find schemes which are acceptable within the framework of the EU. Of course, there are fundamental freedoms, but what we’re saying is, sport is different.
“For example, the transfer system in football – that doesn’t happen in any other walk of life, but it’s accepted in football. So why can’t other things be accepted? If we leave things entirely to the free-market system, then almost everything can be challenged. And where would they be challenged? In the courts. Which are the last place we want to have sports rules decided. You could ultimately get penalty decisions challenged in court – you could take it to ridiculous extremes.”
Likewise, if national teams can impose restrictions on eligibility – a principle that provides the bedrock of international football – then why not clubs?
“Exactly,” says Taylor. “On the face of it, you could say, under EU law, national teams should not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of nationality. That’s why the untrammelled, the unfettered application of EU law to all aspects of sport is itself absurd. What we’re saying is: the politicians need to do more for us. And don’t leave us entirely at the mercy of the free market.”
Personally, I still can’t see why European footballers should not be subjected to the vagaries of the free market. There is nothing stopping talented English players going abroad to learn their trade if they can’t get into Arsenal’s first team. In fact, they’d be better footballers for it. But it seems like this actually might be a more realistic possibility for the future than writers such as World Soccer’s Brian Glanville realise.
Edit: See the comments for arguments in support of Glanville’s point and against Taylor’s claim from ursus and, uh, myself (we are happy to help correct ourselves).