Whenever you watch Ukrainian football on local TV one of the most frequent words you hear is “Legionnaire” (“Легіонер”). No, it doesn’t have anything to do with the French Foreign Legion; in Ukraine this word also denotes a foreign player.
The issue of the limit on foreign players has divided the Ukrainian football community into two halves. There are those who think that the current limit (no more than 7 foreigners in the line-up) should be tougher or at least remain unchanged and there are also others who reckon that there should be no limits on foreigners at all.
The main argument of those standing for tighter rules regarding the limit is that the domestic players have little chances of breaking into the first-teams of their respective clubs, and consequently they can’t develop in a proper way (and strengthen the Ukraine national team) without (or little) match practice at the highest level. The nationalistic aspect is also present when it comes to discussing this topic. And the main point of those who are against any limits lies in the fact that Ukrainian teams can’t reach their full potential in a situation when a player’s passport becomes almost as important as his technical or physical attributes. To support their approach the latter bring to the table basic economic postulates regarding healthy/fair competition, which will lead benefit Ukrainian football as well. The former, in turn, keep persisting that a domestic product must be protected.
What can Ukrainian clubs lose and gain in financial terms if there is no limit on foreign players? Most likely, it will help them come closer to balancing their books as the average wage bill regarding domestic players and their transfer value will be reduced due to a more competitive market. When reading Sefer Alibaev’s (FIFA football agent) opinion on player exodus at Arsenal Kyiv as a result of very serious financial problems it becomes quite clear that even average Ukrainian players are currently overpaid: “…Who left Arsenal? Those players who have not accepted thrice reduced salaries and had offers from other clubs. Even despite thrice reduced salaries, all the players, without exception, earn more than players make on average in Europe, let alone the eastern part of the continent…” It should be said they are also overpriced. Last year Metalist coach Myron Markevych was asked by a local journalist why he didn’t sign Ukrainian players, and according to the Metalist boss, inflated prices were the main reason, as was the case with Oleg Golodyuk’s move from Karpaty to Metalist, which wasn’t meant to happen because of the aforementioned factor.
Some argue that without the limit Ukrainian football will be flooded with mediocre and cheap workforce from Eastern Europe, Africa and South America – the players whose level will be lower than that of domestic footballers. It can happen, but if you are a failure at picking good apples in a supermarket, it means that you or your advisers are incompetent in this field. Apples or supermarkets have nothing to do with that. Limits and limited competence are two big differences as they say in Odessa; the former shouldn’t compensate for the latter. As for the cheapness, why should Ukrainian players cost more and receive higher wages than their counterparts from other countries, given that the calibre of both parties is the same?..
Let’s now touch on development of Ukrainian players in an open market. A lot of people in Ukraine fear that young players will never become finished articles if the limit is removed (or even remains as it is now). Indeed, the competition to play in the top flight will become tougher, but then again such an environment can only lead to a player’s professional growth. Still, any coach will rather opt for a local player than a foreigner provided both of them possess the same skill set and a price tag. Germany (Belgium could be another good example), for instance, doesn’t have any limits on foreign players but at the same time their football conveyor belt has delivered one of the best generations of players this country has ever had, and these players don’t warm the bench. It has been done thanks to a structural approach to developing young players rather than setting quotas on foreigners.
Interestedly, as the Ukraine coach, Oleg Blokhin used to emphasize the negative effect the present state of things might have on Ukrainian football, but since the former Ballon d’Or winner took over at Dynamo Kyiv his rhetoric seems to have undergone changes regarding this issue. “I will demand a tighter limit for more Ukrainians to take to the pitch”, said Blokhin at a press-conference ahead of Euro 2012, “If you lift the limit, there won’t be the national team, it simply won’t be needed. I cannot influence the situation”. And here’s what Blokhin had to say after leaving the national team for Dynamo Kyiv: “Having arrived at Dynamo, I delved into the transfer issues and found that at this stage the prices for Ukrainian footballers are prohibitively high. It has to do with the limit. The boys automatically drop their standards, believing that they ‘grasped God by the beard’ – a coach is forced to field them in any case. Perhaps, in the future, this restriction will be lifted – for cubs such a decision would be a boon”. When asked about what the above decision would mean for the national team, Oleg Blokhin didn’t sound as pessimistic as before: “It the limit is lifted, Ukrainian players will be more motivated to prove themselves”.
When you see a squad the Metalist coach sends out in the Europa League there is a feeling that Metalist are an Argentine side based in Ukraine, but each club should have the right to determine its own transfer policy based on traditions, preferences and financial resources (not forgetting about FFP), with the fans’ opinion also taken into account. Indeed, the more home grown talents Ukrainian clubs will field in the starting line-up, the better. But it shouldn’t reduce teams’ overall quality and lead to underachievement because of artificial restraints.