Blatter's 6+5 doesn't add up
If Sepp Blatter has one great talent, it's finding two numbers that add up to 11. The FIFA president told a meeting of sports authorities recently: "We hope that in (2012) we'll start with '3+8,' then '4+7' and so on."
Blatter, of course, is talking about the number of overseas players allowed to be in a team's starting XI. He wants to limit the number of foreign players allowed to play for club teams to promote values like national identity and cultural heritage in domestic football competitions.
It's hard to argue against those honourable causes, but there's a whole logistical minefield that needs to be considered in depth before the most 'international' leagues, such as England's Premier League, are irreversibly damaged.
If clubs are forced to field a quota of local players, there is a real fear that the gap in quality between the top and bottom clubs of big leagues such as the Premier League would widen dramatically, to the detriment of that competition. We'll get to that shortly.
Part of Blatter's challenge is defining 'home-grown'. In addition to local players, born and raised in the country they play in, 'home-grown' players will likely be allowed in the allocation of six players in a 6+5 system. A foreign-born player may count as a local if they have been in a country since a certain age, or have been at a club for a certain number of years. But for the sake of our discussion here, let's simplify things and just say that that Premier League clubs must field at least six players in their starting XI who are English. What might happen?
Given there are 20 teams in the Premier League, at least 120 English players would have to be starting in Premier League sides every weekend (six players for each of the 20 clubs).
To put that in perspective, in the recent mid-October round of matches - by my rough calculations - a total of 79 English players started in games. That's around four per team on average, two short of the requirement. Hull City, Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers joined Arsenal with the least Englishmen - at two each - while Aston Villa and Birmingham City could already play in Blatter's world - both had six.
Of course, some good English players would have been injured or suspended that weekend, but let's assume an equal number of 'lesser' English players were only playing because better foreign players were also unavailable. On that basis, I'm going to claim that there are around 80 English players of enough quality to start in the Premier League at its current standard, give or take a few.
Now, in a 6+5 world, you can bet that England's biggest clubs would want the best English players. And they wouldn't want just six of them - what if one gets injured? They will want quality back-ups, too. The traditional 'big four' and serious challengers are going to want at least eight Premier League quality players. Looking at Manchester City's giant squad after their spending this season, you could imagine them wanting ten or more of those 80 players on their books.
Just like now, the big clubs will buy the best players from their smaller, poorer rivals. I could imagine that the vast majority of those top 80 players would be spread around the eight clubs challenging for European places, leaving just one or two decent Englishmen for each of the other dozen teams. Those other teams still need to field six locals, meaning that Championship players and untried youngsters will have to fill the void.
Not only will that result in a drop of overall quality for the Premier League, it will surely extend the gap between the top clubs and the bottom even further than it is now. The top sides will only experience a small drop in quality, replacing between two and four of their world-class overseas stars with locals who are still capable at the top level, while the smaller clubs will be forced to field around half a team who aren't up to scratch.
Longer term, the rule should theoretically benefit clubs who develop their own talent. But so long as lucrative European competition exists, and big money transfers are allowed, it's difficult to see how the top sides wouldn't stop simply buying up the best players. Given the progress made in this season's Premier League in terms of evenness in the top half of the table, that would be a real shame.
My maths hasn't taken those foreign but 'home-grown' players into account. But 'home-grown' brings its own hypothetical problems. Let's say a player must be at a club for five years to be included as a local. The whole transfer market would likely be skewed towards a younger age, as top clubs try to get the best talent on their books earlier and earlier. With no guarantee that a brilliant 17-year-old will become a brilliant senior player, rich clubs may take a 'safety-in-numbers' policy and buy up even more young players than they do currently.
All this is not to mention the farcical on-field situations the law would inevitably bring about. I can imagine first-minute substitutions where lesser local players are brought off so foreign stars aren't wasted on the bench. I can imagine perfectly good overseas goalkeepers getting dropped for second-string locals because a manager needs to meet his 6+5 quota.
Media previews on matches would be more focused on predicting which vastly superior overseas players might be matched up against weaker locals who are forcibly played. Every tactical battle would be underscored by a team's need to field certain players. There would be a massive gap between some of the top overseas players and the bottom of the local spectrum, ruining the on-field dynamic.
I would even question the supposed benefits that 6+5 would bring. It's logical that for every Championship player who would theoretically come up to Premier League level, there is one overseas player who would lose his spot. Many of the Premier League's international stars come from small countries - these players won't want to play in their countries' tiny, less-lucrative domestic leagues.
With 6+5 being a global initiative, there won't be much opportunity for these players in other major European leagues, either. The only growth area of playing opportunity would be in leagues such as the Championship, where clubs that don't often field five internationals would be losing their best players. For all the 'national identity' instilled in the Premier League, we could see a reverse in the second-tier competition.
Those players from places like Guinea and Barbados wouldn't be happy that their chance at earning Premier League wages has been undermined by 6+5, despite their ability to play at that level previously. They'd be lining up to fight FIFA in the courts.
Blatter knows this. He said FIFA "will not implement something before we have a clear legal situation, because if we do not ... a player can immediately go to the European Court of Justice ... and then the whole matter would be a debacle."
The whole thing would be a grand distraction that would take away from the simplistic essence of football. The fans want to talk about football, not algebra. Blatter must find another way forward.