What price appeals?

Brazil’s Alex, loaned by his club PSV Eindhoven to Chelsea, was kept waiting for four hours by the immigration jobsworths at the Heathrow Airport on the pretext of finding out whether he had a work permit. Eventually Alex simply ran out of patience and caught the next plane back to Brazil.

Within a day or two of each other, two cases showed up the farce which the permit and appeals system for foreign players joining English clubs has become. Foreign in the strict sense that they come from outside the European Community, from where any player from any country can walk right into English football. For those outside the EEC however, the criteria are that an applicant must have played at least 75 per cent of his country’s “official,” meaning no n-friendly, international games over the previous two years.

For some time this rigorous, arbitrary and inflexible system was in vogue. Either a player had met the criteria, or he was barred; whoever he was. A proviso which sometimes resulted in sheer outrageous fiasco. I remember the fury of my friend Oscar Arce, an Argentine who played for Aston Villa among other clubs and became a successful international coach, notably with the Ivory Coast team and in Switzerland with the Sion Club. Back in Buenos Aires and acting as an agent, he called me to ask for help for a client who wanted to play in England. Recognised as the finest goalkeeper in the Argentine league, he had an intractable problem. He had spent time in Colombia, who had capped him five times.

Returning to Buenos Aires, he quickly established himself as an outstanding ’keeper, but having played those five games for Colombia, there was no way Argentina were going to pick him. Not even once, let alone the three quarters of official internationals which was the inflexible requisite. So when he eventually did move it would be to Spain.

Something had to give and in due course a compromise was reached. An appeals committee was set up to which a rejected footballer could turn and if the committee granted him appeal, he was home and dry. These committees which initially met over lunch in a London, Mayfair hotel, consisted of representatives of the Football Association, the Premier League, the Professional Footballers’ Association and an independent member, presided over by a knowledgeable official from the Government’s Department of Employment. The English club involved sent a representative, the manager or the Chairman, sometimes both, to plead their case. When they had had their say and departed the panel would discuss, then vote. If there was a deadlock, the yeses balancing the noes, then the player would be rejected.

For two years I was the independent member of this panel, and very interesting and instructive it was. Often a player would have such a strong case that his application could virtually be rubber stamped. At other times the case was so slight, especially given that a criterion of the appeal process was that the player would add quality to the English game, that you wondered why the club had ever bothered to bring him. For my part, though I was glad our committee existed, able as it was to mitigate the frequent hard cases thrown up by the unreasonable 75 per cent law, I could not help but wonder what the point could be of now having two stages, with a rejected club going almost automatically to appeal.

A system which so recently led to the sheer farce involving two players of undoubted renown, Alex of PSV and Brazil, a powerful and adventurous centre-back, and the Dynamo Zagreb and Croatia centre-forward, Eduardo da Silva, himself of Brazilian origin. Neither had played the requisite 75 per cent of games for their respective countries, but Eduardo had shone and scored for Zagreb away to Arsenal, who now wanted him, in the European Cup, and against England in the European qualifiers in Zagreb. Moreover, it was known that Alex, bound for Chelsea, was in fact loaned by them to PSV Eindhoven.

What happened to him, disgracefully, when he arrived at Heathrow Airport, was that the immigration jobsworths kept him waiting for four hours, on the pretext of finding out whether he had a work permit. Which of course he hadn’t, since his case had still to go to the tribunal of appeals. Catch 22. Eventually and understandably, Alex simply ran out of patience and caught the next plane back to Brazil. Whereupon a bird brained official of the Home Office’s Border Control, one Brodie Clark, blethered, “We have a duty to ensure the public are aware of and have confidence in the security in place at the border.” Yet not long since, a later-to-be-convicted jihadi terrorist had been allowed to fly to Pakistan, despite being found in possession of a suitcase full of money; then allowed freely back into Britain! Needless to say, in no time at all, both players have waltzed through the appeals procedure.

In a rational world, the absurd 75 per cent demand would be abolished — can you imagine the 17-year-old Pele being automatically turned down after scoring six goals for Brazil in the 1958 World Cup finals? Though to be fair, one found some odd things could happen at the appeal stages too. Such as when Harry Redknapp, then the volatile manager of West Ham United, requested a permit for an Australian centre-half called Hayden Foxe, whom he described as a major star, in European demand. Our panel split, the request was refused. Yet, some time later, West Ham and Foxe appealed again; manifestly against the rules of the Department, which decreed that only one appeal would be allowed.

West Ham brought all sorts of testimony from the Australia Press and showed a film of the recent Olympic tournament, in Sydney, when the Aussies met Italy in their opening game and lost. Foxe gave the goal away, as I knew; the clip didn’t show that, but again, the panel split. Foxe lost, Harry was incensed. But why did he have a second opportunity?