Emboldened perhaps by its success in reducing the number of matches in the Champions League, UEFA has thrown down the gauntlet to its leading clubs by insisting that clubs’ 25 man squads submitted for its competitions should contain at least two players trained in clubs’ own academies and two players who have been reared nationally (i.e. spent at least three years between the ages of fifteen and twenty one as a registered player in the relevant country).
This figure will rise to four in each category in 2008/9 with the effect that from that date (but not before), clubs will be hard put to avoid actually fielding some home grown players (thus restricting opportunities for others) at some stage in their matches if they are to comply with the rules that UEFA has laid down.
Having failed to achieve specific legislative exemption for sport, UEFA must hope to benefit from a number of ill judged challenges to governing bodies’ perfectly legitimate bans on players who have failed drug tests and similarly sensible restrictions on multiple club ownership by single entities. However, it is very doubtful whether the “sporting exception” created by the European judges to dismiss such challenges will stretch so far as allowing an impediment to free movement of players. There is no ‘de minimis’ exception to restrictions on movement and no exemption is available under the competition rules in such circumstances.
UEFA says its goal is to achieve “competitive balance” and stop the rich clubs hogging the talent. Precisely the same argument failed to justify the nationality based quotas condemned in Bosman: it is therefore difficult to see how it would not suffer the same fate if challenged again. In rejecting the competitive balance justification for quotas based on nationality, the European Court of Justice Advocate General pointed out that this objective could be achieved in a number of different and less restrictive ways. This was echoed by the European Court who noted the absence of a player draft system in soccer. UEFA’s difficulty is that none of the clubs who really count would tolerate any of the measures used by US sporting leagues to achieve competitive balance such as player drafts or wage caps.
A major factor in creating competitive imbalances is the way in which clubs who gain access to the Champions League earn far more than their less fortunate brethren. UEFA is over a barrel here as well. If it divvies up the money across the board more equally to benefit non participants, the major clubs will pull out – something that is open to them if they don’t like UEFA’s proposals. To avoid the trouble of setting up their own competitions, it is likely that a legal challenge will be mounted – possibly through the medium of an aggrieved player. If UEFA loses Bosman II, its days will surely be numbered.
What is more, it is unclear how the goal of competitive balance would actually be promoted by UEFA’s proposals. Already, the competition to recruit talented youngsters for club academies is intense. If UEFA’s scheme is implemented, this competition will only intensify and inducements for very young players to sign up or move on will become greater still. In this process, it is inevitable that the clubs with the deepest pockets will be able to monopolise the home grown talent just as they do at the moment (e.g. Manchester United).
It is therefore difficult to see what UEFA hopes to achieve in promoting the scheme – especially as major domestic leagues are unlikely to follow suit.