Thursday, June 13, 2024
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How Champions League football might have looked in Sepp Blatter’s 6+5 world

Over the course of his 17 years as the most powerful figure in world football, Sepp Blatter was memorably characterised by the venerable British sportswriter Brian Glanville as someone who had 50 new ideas every day, “51 of them bad”.

There was the one where the then FIFA president said the key to attracting more interest in women’s football was for the players to wear “tighter shorts” to “create a more female aesthetic”; the one where he proposed games be split into four quarters; the one where he suggested the goal be made 50cm (19in) wider and 25cm taller; the one where he urged any player racially abused on the pitch to settle the matter by shaking hands with his abuser at the final whistle; the one where, with his regime finally crumbling in 2015, he declared he was the man to “clean up” FIFA.

But Blatter had his moments. He was highly influential in the introduction of the back-pass rule in 1992. He led FIFA’s clampdown on both time-wasting and the dreaded “tackle” from behind. Before he became an eccentric power-crazed FIFA president, he was a skilled administrator with a fervent passion for trying to modernise and improve the game.

One Blatter idea that fell by the wayside was something called “6+5”.

It was as controversial as it was intriguing. Essentially, it proposed that every starting line-up in club football should contain at least six players eligible to play for the national team in question. For example, Real Madrid would be required to have at least six Spaniards in their starting line-up, Bayern Munich six Germans, Juventus six Italians and so on, whether it was a team in Europe, North America, South America, Africa, Asia or Oceania.

For a period in the late 2000s, it looked like 6+5 — or some version of it — might become a reality.

FIFA’s congress voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution in 2008. UEFA’s then president Michel Platini said that while it might contravene European Union regulations allowing the free movement of workers, he welcomed “the philosophy and objectives of the rule” and hoped the EU legal framework would allow 6+5, or something close to it, to be established.

Within the game, the only strong opposition came from the Premier League. Richard Scudamore, the league’s chief executive at the time, said 6+5 was fuelled by “xenophobic rhetoric” — “and I for one am not going to allow that agenda to be washed over”.

Scudamore need not have worried. The European Commission decreed that “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”. By 2010, the idea had been condemned to the ash heap of history.

In the interests of idle speculation and whimsy, though, imagine for a moment that FIFA had got its way and 6+5 had become a reality. Who would have gained? Who would have lost out? Would football history be significantly different? Would it be better or worse?


The world wasn’t going to change overnight.

FIFA had proposed a phased introduction of 6+5. Starting from the 2010-11 season, it would have been 4+7, then 5+6 in 2011-12 before becoming 6+5 in time for 2012-13.

One leading club were uniquely placed to absorb the new rule. Barcelona were already ascendant under Pep Guardiola having built an all-conquering team around a core of Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Pedro. In the real world, the Barcelona team who beat Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley included seven Spanish players. The new rule would have hit United (who had only three English players in their starting line-up for that game), but not Barca.

It is hard to imagine much would have changed the following season — except perhaps that Barcelona might not have been beaten in their semi-final by a Chelsea team who, even with that phased introduction of 6+5, would have struggled to comply with the need for five English players in the starting line-up.

Chelsea had four English players (Gary Cahill, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard) in their starting XI for the semi-final second leg at Camp Nou and four again (Cahill, Cole, Lampard and Ryan Bertrand) for the final, when they beat Bayern Munich on penalties.

But perhaps 5+6 would have stretched them too far. Would they really have managed to overcome both Barcelona and a Bayern side containing a group of German players (Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Jerome Boateng, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller) who proved the foundation for success for both club and country over the years that followed?


Would Madrid’s Kroos have stuck with Bayern? (Pressefoto Ulmerullstein bild via Getty Images)

Bayern’s Champions League-winning starting line-up in 2020 contained six German players. That made them the only winners since Barcelona in 2011 — indeed the only finalist since Atletico Madrid in 2014 — whose line-up was compliant with 6+5.

Champions League winners

Year Winners National team players in XI Runners-up National team players in XI Requirement Winners in 6+5 era?

2011

Barcelona

7

Manchester United

3

4+7

Barcelona

2012

Chelsea

4

Bayern Munich

8

5+6

Bayern

2013

Bayern

5

Dortmund

7

6+5 from here

Bayern

2014

Real Madrid

3

Atletico Madrid

6

Atletico Madrid

2015

Barcelona

4

Juventus

3

Barcelona

2016

Real Madrid

2

Atletico Madrid

5

Atletico Madrid

2017

Real Madrid

3

Juventus

4

Juventus

2018

Real Madrid

3

Liverpool

3

Bayern

2019

Liverpool

2

Tottenham

5

Ajax

2020

Bayern

6

PSG

2

Bayern

2021

Chelsea

3

Manchester City

4

PSG

2022

Real Madrid

1

Liverpool

2

PSG

2023

Manchester City

2

Inter

5

Manchester City

Perhaps with 6+5 in place, Borussia Dortmund and Atletico would have pushed even harder than they did under Jurgen Klopp and Diego Simeone respectively over that period. But Bayern beat Dortmund in the 2013 Champions League final. Would it have been any different if Bayern had been required to field an extra German in the starting line-up at Wembley (say Mario Gomez rather than Mario Mandzukic or, stretching things again, Sami Khedira, then at Real Madrid, rather than Javi Martinez)? Probably not.

Madrid would have had to change their recruitment to adjust to 6+5, but perhaps that would have meant buying Martinez from Athletic Bilbao and David Silva and Juan Mata from Valencia rather than Khedira, Mesut Ozil and Angel Di Maria. It was hardly a bad time to be forced to prioritise Spanish players. Likewise in Germany, where Bayern might instead have picked up Khedira from Stuttgart and Ozil from Werder Bremen.

It is hard to imagine the impact on the top end of European football would have been radically different over that period. The Benfica-Porto duopoly in Portugal, which relied heavily on South American imports, might have been broken up by Sporting Lisbon, but perhaps not for long.

There was an outstanding generation of Belgian and Croatian players emerging. Perhaps under 6+5, Anderlecht, Dinamo Zagreb and others would have kept hold of their best players for longer — not forever, clearly, but long enough for them to have a decent run in the Champions League or Europa League, long enough to sell them on to the bigger leagues for a higher price — rather than, almost without exception, seeing them whisked away to the bigger leagues for cut-price fees at the first glimpse of their potential.


The biggest impact of 6+5 would have been felt in the Premier League, where all the leading clubs would have been forced to make significant investments in homegrown talent at a time when there were few emerging English players of the requisite quality.

Even in the real world, English performance in Europe took a significant downturn over this period; Chelsea’s 2012 success was one of just four Champions League semi-final appearances by Premier League clubs between 2009-10 and 2016-17. With 6+5, the fall-off might have been even greater.

This was a time when the England team were performing lamentably on the international stage: eliminated from the 2014 World Cup after two matches, knocked out of the European Championship by Iceland two years later. By contrast, a new generation of German and Spanish players were thriving.

Italian football might have suffered a greater drop-off, too. Last season saw Italian teams reach the Champions League’s semi-finals for only the fourth and fifth time since 2010. Inter Milan had five Italians in their starting XI for last season’s final, while Juventus had four in 2017 and three in 2015, but this has not been an era of abundant homegrown talent in Italy. The national team’s Euro 2020 success was sandwiched between failed World Cup qualifying campaigns. Then again, perhaps a limit on overseas players in the Premier League would have helped other leagues, like Serie A, to attract more players of a higher calibre.

Turning the clock back, surely the Manchester City juggernaut would have been slowed by 6+5. Even if they still had, say, Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, their early 2010s team would have been weaker without the influence of Gael Clichy, Aleksandar Kolarov, Nigel de Jong, Samir Nasri, Edin Dzeko and others. They would have needed to invest in more English talent beyond Joe Hart, Micah Richards, Joleon Lescott, Gareth Barry and James Milner.

Might they have pushed harder for Wayne Rooney? There was hardly an abundance of elite-level English players at the time — something then-manager Roberto Mancini made clear with his lack of regard for summer 2012 signings Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair.


How might Pep Guardiola have deployed Rooney at City? (Stu Forster/Getty Images)

On the other hand, their rivals in the Premier League would have been weakened, too. United might have been forced to replace Edwin van der Sar with, say, Jack Butland rather than David de Gea in the summer of 2011.

The complaints from Scudamore and the Premier League clubs and managers would have been vehement: “These regulations are killing our ability to compete, forcing us to rely on homegrown players.”

But that was the whole idea: to incentivise and reward player development, to restore a sense of local identity among teams and leagues and try to make more of a level playing field in an era when so much of the game’s wealth and talent was being concentrated among the very richest, most powerful clubs.

Would that have been such a bad thing?


There would have been other consequences.

Quite apart from the question of legality, Scudamore warned that 6+5 might lead many players of dual nationality to pledge their allegiance to the larger nation to maximise their career opportunities at club level. As an example, Didier Drogba and Wilfried Zaha might feasibly have committed to France and England respectively rather than their native Ivory Coast. Erling Haaland, born in Leeds, might even have committed to England rather than Norway to pursue a dream of playing in the Premier League. This, Scudamore said, would be a nonsense.

Then there is the question of whether by restricting the number of places available to overseas players in the biggest leagues, 6+5 would have harmed the development of those players who missed out.

According to the CIES Football Observatory, Brazil, France and Argentina are the biggest exporters of footballers, followed by England (most of them moving within the UK or the Republic of Ireland), Germany, Spain, Colombia, Croatia, Serbia, the Netherlands, Uruguay, Nigeria, Portugal, Ghana, Belgium and Denmark.

Clearly, there would have been fewer opportunities for overseas players in Europe’s “big five” leagues, but in theory, that would have enhanced the quality of, for example, the Croatian, Serbian and Dutch leagues, not to mention those in Brazil and Argentina.

In their 26-man squads at the 2022 World Cup, only three Brazilians and one Argentinian (one of their reserve goalkeepers) were contracted to clubs in their homeland.  That Argentina won the tournament might suggest their national team is stronger for their players’ exodus into Europe, but that was the first South American triumph at the World Cup in 20 years. The spread of talent into Europe seems to have harmed the South American teams at international level as well as domestically.


Would Reyna and Pulisic have competed in MLS? (Erin Chang/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Then there is the question of how 6+5 might have impacted leagues in other confederations.

On the one hand, some players from the United States, Mexico, Japan, Australia and elsewhere would have had fewer opportunities to progress to Europe. On the other hand, might Major League Soccer be stronger if, for example, talents such as Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Gio Reyna had spent the early years of their professional career in the U.S. rather than moving to German teams in their teens?

It is a question that is hard to answer. It is quite possible that those years spent in Dortmund’s academy enabled Pulisic and Reyna to progress further than they would have done had they played at home for longer, but we don’t know that for certain. And we would, presumably, be talking about a higher standard of MLS, where the best American and Canadian talents were retained for longer and sold for bigger transfer fees, allowing greater investment in infrastructure, coaching and playing talent.

Much of this sounds positive in terms of promoting greater equality in the game, but not every nation is as well equipped to invest in infrastructure as, for example, the United States or Japan.

The most serious opposition to 6+5 was based on the impact on the freedom of movement.

The opportunity to forge a career in the biggest leagues — and thus the capacity to maximise earnings — would have been reduced by what the European Commission considered “direct discrimination on the grounds of nationality”.

For many footballers in South America and Africa in particular, a move to Europe has offered an escape from poverty.

Senegal forward Sadio Mane is just one of many African players whose success in Europe has transformed an entire community. With a strict limit on the number of overseas players, football’s ability to change lives would have been compromised.


In time, the Premier League would have adapted to 6+5. It would have had no choice.

Returning to the original arguments about the proposal, Scudamore told a House of Commons select committee that while seeing more homegrown players involved was desirable, “the only solution is an absolute commitment to youth development” rather than a protectionist quota system.

English football had already been forced into action by the national team’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008 and a fast-diminishing number of homegrown players in the Premier League. A vastly increased investment in youth development, both at grassroots and elite academy level, took years to bear fruit, but eventually, English football has produced a generation of players such as Bukayo Saka, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden, to name just four. And at this point, it is tempting to imagine 6+5 might ultimately, gradually, have enabled a Premier League resurgence.

It would be a very different Premier League to the current one: across 10 matches this past weekend, only five of the 20 teams (Bournemouth, Everton, Luton Town, Newcastle United and Sheffield United) started their games with six or more English players.

England-qualified players in PL starting

The table excludes, for example, Aston Villa’s English-born Matt Cash, who changed allegiance to Poland

Over the past decade, the proportion of English players in Premier League starting line-ups has fluctuated between 29 per cent and 38 per cent. Under the 6+5 rule, it would have been a minimum of 54.5 per cent English players in every starting line-up for every game.

That would have seriously affected the quality of the Premier League in the early-to-mid 2010s (which hardly felt like a golden age in any case). It would presumably have been far less of an issue now that there are so many talented players in every Premier League squad as well as those excelling in other leagues.

But then you wonder whether that presumed period of struggle in the early-to-mid 2010s might have impacted the league’s growth. Would its global television contracts be so huge? Would that have harmed the league’s ability to attract elite talent? Would Klopp and Guardiola, arguably the most influential coaches in world football, still have come to the Premier League in 2015 and 2016? Perhaps not, but financially and in terms of global reach, the league was already too strong to remain in the doldrums for long.

As for which clubs might have adapted best to 6+5, it is hard to speculate beyond the first few years because they would have operated and recruited so differently. If Manchester City’s owners had been constrained by 6+5, they would simply have targeted the best English talent more aggressively — not just Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Jack Grealish, but feasibly Declan Rice, Harry Kane and others.

Might it have brought a more level playing field within leagues? In the short term, perhaps, but dominant clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern would have had even greater incentive to cherry-pick their rivals’ leading players.

Short of changing the game’s entire financial distribution model, any improvement to competitive balance might ultimately have been small.

But perhaps the Champions League roll of honour over the past decade would have looked a little different: a little less Real Madrid, a little less Premier League, a little more opportunity for those clubs who, like Dortmund under Klopp, Atletico under Simeone, and Ajax under Erik ten Hag, built teams around homegrown talent and came close to upsetting the establishment.


A final thought. If Barcelona and then Bayern were uniquely placed to meet the challenge of 6+5 in the early 2010s, perhaps that would have changed as the years went on and, after a period of Spanish and German excellence on the international stage, we would by now have entered a golden period for French football and for Paris Saint-Germain.

Under Qatari ownership, PSG have spent the past decade and more trying to assemble a team capable of winning the Champions League. They have come close at times — closer than they are sometimes given credit for — but it is notable that their president, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, admitted in 2022 that they still needed to “create a real team, find a real collective spirit” with “players who are proud to represent PSG and ready to fight every day”, stating his ambition “to have only Parisian players in our team”.

Building around homegrown players is not always a panacea, but it is generally regarded as desirable for any team, particularly when blessed with abundant quality on their doorstep. As explored in greater depth in this article, the talent emerging from the Ile-de-France region over the past decade has been extraordinary — as has PSG’s eagerness, until the past 12 months or so, to look beyond it. Surely, under 6+5, forced to build a team around French players, PSG would have won at least one Champions League title by now.

The idea, according to Blatter, was to retain a greater sense of identity, a strong link between club teams and the communities they represent. In some ways, it sounds idyllic — even if, looking at the wider picture of freedom of movement, it was totally flawed.

Still, unlike many of Blatter’s ideas, it is at least worth contemplating what might have been.

(Top photo: Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton)


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