Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hitzfeld and Bukal, Switzerland and Yugoslavia – the two sides of the ‘foreign players’ issue. Export and import. Today every club in Europe is saturated with foreigners, a far cry from the situation in the 1970s. But in football foreign players are as old as the football itself – there were always foreign players: many clubs were founded by foreigners, mainly English, but not only English. In the first half of 20th century foreigners were common, yet, difficult to really trace – some were working or studying abroad, playing for the local clubs meantime. Others settled in foreign lands, became naturalized citizens, and even played for the national teams of their new homelands. A third part joined foreign professional clubs – Stefan Kovacs, the coach of Ajax, was one of those: before the Second World War he played professionally in Belgium. In amateur football nationality doesn’t really matter – as long as the player doesn’t receive payment from the club. Most leagues were amateur, but gradually professional football spread. However, even professional leagues were not always entirely professional – smaller countries maintained semi-professional leagues and was still possible, even in 1980, semi-professional or amateur clubs to play in otherwise professional leagues. With professional football came restrictions concerning foreign players: domestic leagues felt they have to limit the number of foreigners for two main reasons. The first one is preserving relative equality among clubs – it was clear that rich clubs will hire every possible star, becoming unbeatable. Such possibility was perceived as obviously harmful – a league dominated by one-two big clubs was not to be attractive and the gates would certainly suffer. The second reason was nationalistic concern: unlimited number of foreign players was seen as threatening local talent. This concern was aggravated by the emergence of the World Cup and other tournaments involving national teams – for the glory of the country, domestic players had to be good and plentiful. True, until 1964 there were restrictions about foreigners included in national teams – the great Alfredo di Stefano played for three different countries – Argentina, Colombia, and Spain. He was far from exception, not even new phenomenon, not even record holder – South American stars became champions of the world with Italy as early as 1934, the so-called ‘oriundi’, who were considered Italians by law for descending from ethnic Italian (or Spanish – the Iberians used the same term and concept) parents. As for records – Ladislao Kubala, playing for Barcelona at the same time di Stefano was playing for Real, played for total of four national teams – Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Slovakia (during the Second World War, when Nazi-sponsored ‘independent’ Slovakian state existed briefly), and Spain. It was this wide-spread jumping from one national team to another which led FIFA to forbid changing national teams in 1964. Italy and Spain were the biggest offenders, but hardly the only ones: even Communist Eastern Europe was not immune in the late 1940s- early 1950s – the Bulgarian striker Bozhin Laskov played for both Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, for instance.

Bozhin Laskov scores with a header. He played from 1934 to 1960, collecting 2 Bulgarian titles with Levski (Sofia) – 1942 and 1946, and 3 Czechoslovakian – 1949, 1950, and 1951 – with Slovan (Bratislava). In 1949 France Football voted him the best European attacker of the year. He played 6 matches for Bulgaria and 3 for Czechoslovakia.