The impact of Turkey's new foreign player rules

The impact of Turkey's new foreign player rules

I was extremely pissed off when I learned that the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) had yet again changed the rules on foreign player quotas for football clubs, allowing them to field the entire starting lineup with non-Turkish players.

Not because I believe in the merit of such restrictions. If nothing else, they put Turkish clubs at a disadvantage against their European counterparts. But what about domestic players? Surely, the new rules would prevent young and promising talent from getting crucial playing time to hone their skills. How about the level of competition in the league? Or the performance of the national team? Would the new rules help clubs financially? One can only speculate – but maybe we can do more.

Loyal readers know that economists like to poke their noses into virtually everywhere. Three members of the dismal science from the University of Zurich even have a paper with a theoretical model, which “shows that a league with binding restrictions on foreign talent for all clubs is more balanced than a league without binding restrictions on foreign talent. Moreover, the wage level of domestic [foreign] talent is higher [lower] in a league with a binding restriction on foreign players. Finally, a tighter restriction on foreign players increases profits of all clubs.”

While the first two results are intuitive, the third one is not. In fact, some have claimed that one of the main reasons behind the new rules is to alleviate clubs’ financial woes after the plunge in attendance. But a theoretical model is only as good as the simplifying assumptions it makes, and so it may be better to look at country experiences. Luckily, economists have done that as well.

A paper analyzing the implementation of foreign player limits in the Russian league in 2005 does indeed find support for the first two theoretical conclusions – but not the third one. The quotas also forced Russian clubs to devote more resources to youth academies and domestic players saw more playing time. This last point is also often made in the island where the sport was born: Many relate the English national team’s underperformance in international competitions to the Premier League’s foreign player imports.

But a paper from the Adam Smith Institute establishes a “negative statistical relationship between current performance, as measured by a country’s FIFA ranking and the current amount of football played in a league by native players.” Furthermore, there is “no relationship between minutes played by English players in the Premier League five or 10 years ago and current performance.” Finally, there is “strong evidence that a league’s overall strength, as measured by its UEFA coefficient, is predicted by the amount of foreigners playing in it.”

So why was I mad when I learned of the new rules? Because my beloved Beşiktaş had formed its squad based on the old regulations, which allowed for a significantly less number of foreign players, whereas archrivals Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray were acting as if the rules would change. They understood that discretion has been ruling supreme over the rule of law in Turkish policymaking.

But when everyone knows that the rules of the game can change at any time, the rules will not have the desired effect. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised if the positive impacts of the new regulations are less than in other leagues.