Fifa President, Sepp Blatter, has persisted with his call to limit the number of foreign footballers in club teams. The proposal, which has the backing of European football's governing body, Uefa, is to limit the numbers of foreign players in teams of 11 to just six. Fifa aims to have the rule take effect in time for the 2012/13 season, but its plans have hit something of a brick wall in Brussels.

Criticism of Blatter's proposals

The European Commission has made it clear that the proposed rule would fall foul of EU law, which guarantees the free movement of workers between Member States. Any change in the law would require a change to the EC Treaty itself, rather than the mere adoption of legislation. It is highly unlikely that European legislators would see a sufficient case for treating professional sportspeople any differently from other professionals.

The Commission has nonetheless voiced its approval, in principle, of Uefa's plans for a "home-grown players" rule that would ensure that squads contain a minimum of four players (of any nationality) developed by the club over a three-year period between the ages of 15 and 21. The rule also requires at least another four players to have been developed by another club within the national federation.

Leaders of a recently-formed association of 103 Fifa members, the European Club Association (ECA), also view the six plus five rule as unnecessary, instead endorsing the home-grown players proposal. It is worth noting that the ECA previously met with the EU Commissioner for Employment, and its approval of Uefa's plans reflects the Commission's own stance.

The crucial difference between the two proposed rules is that Uefa's plans do not place any restrictions on players' nationalities. Although the home-grown players rule would require clubs to take on a minimum number of locally-trained players, it does not require those locally-trained players to be of the local nationality.

Blatter's response

The Fifa President has admitted that his proposals contravene one of the core principles of European law, but intends to rely on an overwhelming vote by Fifa members in favour of the rule as a mandate to "investigate this matter and look at, always within the limits of the law, how it can be achieved". He argues that while the rule would pose problems in terms of free movement provisions, it would support another of the central principles of the EU – competition. He contends that the rule would ensure the broadest and fairest possible competition in football and that it would restrict concentration of finances and economic monopolies in the sport. The Commission has, incidentally, recently published a White Paper on competition in sport.

Trouble ahead

Nevertheless, any advantages arising from the six plus five rule in terms of boosting competition will require to be balanced with the fact it would interfere with free movement rules. The European Parliament has also passed a resolution declaring its opposition to the Blatter proposal and demanding that Fifa drops the plans.

Direct discrimination on grounds of nationality is unlawful under European law, while even rules that may constitute indirect discrimination may be problematic. The home-grown players rule would require to be very carefully drafted in order to clear this second hurdle. In the well-known case of Bosman, the ECJ ruled that one of Fifa's formerly-existing rules on the transfer of footballers between clubs was indirectly discriminatory and therefore illegal under European law. Whatever the fate of the widely-applauded home-grown players rule, it seems that Blatter's proposal is incapable of surmounting the provisions of the EC Treaty.