Monday, July 28, 2008

Blattering on about domestics

The Globe’s Ben Knight goes after an easy target today in challenging FIFA president’s Sepp Blatter’s argument for forcing club teams to start six domestic players each game. Currently, foreign talent, especially among the so-called big four clubs (Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool) dominates the EPL. It’s suggested that that reliance has been a major reason for the downfall of England as an international power in the game.

As Knight points out, it’s a stretch to blame United’s success in the Champions League with England’s failure to beat Craotia when it mattered last year. England hasn’t fallen so much as it has stood still while many nations pass it (but let’s keep it in perspective—England is still one of the top 10 or so countries and on a good day it can beat anyone. It just doesn’t do it consistently and it’s not a tier one favourite like Brazil, Germany, Italy, et al.).

Blatter’s plan is a non-starter of course. EU employment laws make it next to impossible to enforce. But, that doesn’t mean that the spirit of what Blatter is talking about doesn’t have some relevance.

Football culture is tribal by nature. Fans, especially hardcore fans like you see in the cheap seats the world over, have a symbiotic relationship with the club. They want the club to represent them in ways that go beyond the strip they wear.

It's why many in Canada would raise hell if MLS eliminated TFC's need to carry Canadians and it's why Jim Brennan is so beloved in that city (and it's why Dwayne DeRosario needs to get his butt to T.O. yesterday). It's also likely why you would find more Manchester City fans in Manchester than you would find fans of United--The Evil Empire may win, but it hardly represents the typical working class bloke from the city.

In many ways the world’s game is moving away from its tribal roots. Although many will view that as a good thing—less chance of hooliganism—you must be careful not to lose sight of the reasons why the game is as popular as it is—the passion of its fans. The more soccer’s ruling class pushes away from the smelly underclass the more it runs the risk of alienating those fans. History tells us that professional sports can insult and ignore its fan base almost at will (see: Maple Leafs, Toronto – post expansion years), but soccer could be different (see: FC United of Manchester).

Blatter’s rules won’t fly, but that doesn’t mean that Europe’s top teams should ignore local talent. You gotta take care of the one that brought you to the dance after all...

1 comment:

Andrew Bucholtz said...

Duane, I agree that teams shouldn't ignore local talent. It's important to the fan base and it's the best way to develop players as well, in my mind. I'd argue that every team should have at least one player from their own country who regularly starts (this is why it was so easy to mock Arsenal for a few years).

However, Blatter's proposal goes far beyond that: in my view, it's more about diluting the quality of play in big countries in order to pander to his base of support in the smaller countries.

You mentioned the big four clubs in England. As previously stated, I don't like Arsenal's policy of ignoring Englishmen at all costs, but the other three aren't that bad. They all have English players, but because they're of sufficient skill to play in that side, they're not merely there under some sort of ill-conceived "local content" policy.

Also, you spoke of alienating the fans. Now, fandom's tough to define, as everyone follows teams for different reasons: some for the jersey, some for the name on the back and plenty for other reasons. I don't think you can speak of fans as a single, unified group, and I don't think you can make the case that sticking to local players is actually a good thing for the fans as a whole... it might be a good thing for some of the purely local fans, but soccer is a global game these days and the global audience is best served by top-quality matches.

It's not a good thing for the players, either. In my view, the game of soccer is better off when players like Didier Drogba and Cristiano Ronaldo can compete against top-quality competition, instead of being forced to stay in their local leagues and play for tiny amounts of money by protectionist policies. Now, those two would probably still make it into the EPL under 6+5, but there would be a lot of talented international players who would miss out merely because of their passport.

I watch the EPL because it's great-quality soccer, not because a certain percentage of the players happen to have been born in England, and I'm sure there are others like me. I'm not saying it's wrong to have local players in teams, and I think it is necessary to some degree: my argument is just that the quality of a league shouldn't be diluted by political pressures to play local players.