Limit foreigners in Serie A, says Zoff

 

Unlike Glenn Hoddle, Dino Zoff doesn't express his religious views in public. But what he would give for a little divine intervention to help him out of his first serious headache as Italian national coach.

On the night that England, post-Hoddle, were being outclassed by the world champions at Wembley, Italy's national coach watched his own team stutter to a 0-0 draw against Norway.

Zoff's problems may not be as acute as those that will be inherited by Hoddle's successor but there are worrying similarities for Italian football. Foreign players, says Zoff, may be enhancing the Italian league but take them away and what remains is a dearth of home-grown talent.

A few days ago, Italy's legendary former goalkeeper, 57 but looking 10 years younger, was quoted as suggesting that a ban on foreign players might be necessary to ensure a future for the Azzurri.

Zoff insists he was misquoted but is, nevertheless, extremely worried by a trend which, he says, is squeezing the life out of the development of home-grown players.

Sitting in the lobby of Barcelona's King Juan Carlos hotel this week with a few minutes to spare before being inducted into FIFA's prestigious International Hall of Fame, the man who won a record 112 caps for his country and led Italy to World Cup glory in Spain back in 1982, talked about a problem which could, if it is allowed to continue, develop into a crisis.

"I'm not against foreign players, I'd be hypocritical if I said I was having played with and managed many of them at club level," said Zoff, whose former teams include Lazio, Juventus and Udinese and who took over as national team coach from Cesare Maldini after France '98. "But once you put on another hat, that of national team coach, you soon see the problems."

With trade barriers across Europe being pulled down and the prospect of Bosman-style right being extended to footballers from outside, as well as within, the European Community, European leagues are being flooded as never before with overseas talent. Some of it at the quality end of the market, the rest more off-the-peg than made to measure.

Zoff would like to see a limit of no more than seven foreign players per team. This, he said, would maintain the excitement of Serie A without jeopardising the development of young players.

"Something has to be done. Time was when an Italian coach had between 70 and 80 players to choose from. Now that figure has probably gone down to 35 without taking injuries into account.

"I have no authority, of course, to limit the number of foreigners but you need to strike a fair balance. As a trainer of a national team, it's incredibly hard to work within the current constraints. "There are fewer and fewer Italian players at the highest level. It's a shame because countries need to stand behind their national teams. Clubs don't really lose their identities because the club shirt stands for everything. It's the national team that loses out."

Zoff appreciates that many national team coaches in Europe are in the same position. But, he said, the problem is particularly acute in Italy. "We are a very rich footballing nation and therefore can afford to bring in more overseas players on high wages."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Zoff does not have any instant solutions, apart from the obvious one of UEFA taking on the bureaucrats and imposing its own limits on imported footballers. "In Germany, they are considering a law to naturalise some of the imported players to allow them to play for the national team. Whether or not this would work in Italy I'm not sure but it might be one way of improving the team."

Not that it seems to need much improvement. Italy are top of their European Championship qualifying group, with maximum points from two games. They next play Denmark in March, by which time Zoff will have been in the hot seat for nine months.

As a legend of Italian football, he was the people's choice. He is aware, however, of the possible pitfalls. "I think at the beginning it's always easier for a new national coach. But I'm under no illusions. If I don't win matches, it will be the same for me as for my predecessors whatever my reputation."

Glenn Hoddle's demise is not a subject, understandably, that Zoff wishes to get involved in. But he can't help pass comment on the managerial skills of England's own adopted Italian, Gianluca Vialli.

"Luca has always been extremely intelligent. He's had the good fortune at Chelsea to go into a job that gave him the right support mechanism from the start: areas where he is not so strong have been filled by someone else on the management staff. Having said that, I'm surprised he has been so successful so quickly."

Foreigners in European premier divisions: Spain 200; Germany 185; Italy 163; Netherlands 161; England (Players from outside Britain and Ireland) 116; France 80.