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Feb 26, 2009

EU and FIFA clash over 6+5 rule

The European Commission has dismissed the findings a new report commissioned by FIFA which backed the world governing body's controversial ''6+5'' rule designed to limit the number of foreign players in domestic leagues and warned that pursuing the law would result in a spate of court cases.

The 6+5 rule which has the backing of 155 of FIFA's 208 member nations has been dismissed as illegal by the European Commission and most EU governments who argue that if enforced would amount to discrimination in the workplace and a restriction on the free movement of workers.

However, on Thursday the Institute for European Affairs - who were commissioned by FIFA to study the issue - reported that the idea of restricting foreign players in league games does not fall foul of EU rules on free movement of workers.

''There is no conflict with European law,'' said INEA chairman Professor Jurgen Gramke told a press conference in Brussels, who also insisted that the report, although commissioned by FIFA, was entirely independent.

''We took no instructions from FIFA,'' he added. ''INEA accepted this commission on condition that our requirements of complete independence were met.''

In turn the European Commission told Reuters: "The first impression... is that we don't find any reason to change our view.

"Our position is well known, FIFA's 6+5 rule is based on direct discrimination on the grounds of nationality and is thus against one of the fundamental principles of EU law."

Conversely the INEA report says that, under EU law, the ''regulatory autonomy'' of sporting associations is recognised and supported.

''The key aim of the 6+5 rule in the view of the experts is the creation and assurance of sporting competition. The 6+5 rule does not impinge on the core area of the right to freedom of movement. The rule is merely a rule of the game declared in the general interest of sport in order to improve the sporting balance between clubs and associations."

The rule was first mooted by FIFA in May 2008 but six months later EU ministers poured cold water on the nascent idea arguing that it contravened EU rules.

The 6+5 rule states that at the start of a game a club must field at least six players who would be eligible for the national team of the country of the club.

However, there would be no limit on substitutes, meaning a game could end 3+8 in favour of foreign players, and no limit on the number of non-national players that clubs can sign; it is this condition that FIFA believed would see it escape EU discrimination laws.

Thursday's INEA report said that, at worst, the 6+5 rule could constitute ''indirect discrimination'' because ''it is not directly based on the nationality of professional players''.

Instead it ''merely considers entitlement to play for the national team concerned, and any possible indirect discrimination can be defended on the basis of compelling reasons of general interest''.

The rule would be similar to a previous quota system in football which was outlawed in 1995 thanks to a European Court ruling known as the Bosman Case which removed restrictions in place for UEFA club competitions - and some national leagues - which allowed only three ''foreign'' players in a team.

The INEA report said the Bosman ruling (named after the Belgian player Jean-Marc Bosman who challenged the transfer system) had a dramatic effect on the game as it allowed the use of foreign players to such a degree that up to 56% of national league players are now not eligible to play for the national team of the league in which they play.

With the report claiming that up to half of the ''foreign'' players are ''non-European'' the INEA echoes FIFA's own views on the current state health of the game arguing that the status quo discourages young indigenous footballing talent, because clubs can recruit fully trained players from elsewhere, often cheaper, the report points out.

The report also says that the central aim of the 6+5 rule is to generate and safeguard sporting competition, and its goal is best summed up as ''sport should remain sport''.

Professor Gramke said the report's conclusions justifying the compatibility of the 6+5 rule with EU law also applied to other team sports such as handball, basketball and ice hockey.

''It has an important protective function for the whole of international sport, so that sport can remain sport,'' he said.

The findings add fresh ammunition to FIFA's challenge to the European Commission and governments to recognise the 6+5 rule.

A FIFA spokesman said the report would form the basis of fresh talks with Commission officials, including Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter is determined to see the 6+5 rule in place by the start of the 2012-13 season and the Commission is currently equally determined to block him.

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