It happened at the 90th minute, at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. One skin ball rose in the air and met the leg of a contact from Luxembourg. Sebastian Thiel, 27, responded well to the fly – and sent the ball to between the posts. When the ball shook the net, one of the greatest surprises in the history of the Champions League for generations was recorded: Sheriff Tiraspol, the Moldovan champion, for the first time ever in the Champions League stunned Real Madrid (the all-time European Champions Cup winner) at home. There seems to be no better dictionary definition of the bombastic – and worn-out – word “splash”. The little ones came out big, in the lot of the big ones.
But alongside the astonishment of the inconceivable result, a real discussion also began on the question of the limitation on the participation of foreign players: on Sheriff, for example, there is no such limitation – and in its composition there was not a single player from Moldova. There were Greeks, Brazilians, Ghanaians, Senegalese, Colombians, even players from Kazakhstan – and of course, from Luxembourg. Sheriff’s squad for the Bernabeu game had only four local players, all sitting on the bench and none of them getting a single minute of play. Seemingly, the classic recipe for success is found in Europe – the abolition of the old regulation will free the teams to bring players as they please, find talent from abroad that will raise the team’s professional level, and allow it to achieve.
But is that really true? Does the absence of a foreign restriction necessarily make the teams better, and more competitive in the European frameworks? Has Moldavian football improved as a result of this decision? Here it is important to remember a few things about Sheriff: The first, is that she has never played in the Champions League until this season. The second is that it is a team that is immeasurably stronger than its own league: it has won 19 championships in the local league, which was only founded in 1992 (with the disintegration of the Soviet bloc). That is, it does not represent the general level of football in the country.
The third is that Moldova is not exactly known for its successes in the European frameworks – alongside Sheriff’s appearance this season in the Champions League, in previous years she has appeared three times in total in the home stage of the Europa League. Israeli football, for comparison, had many more appearances in the home stage – both of the champions and of the European (and in contrast to Sheriff’s exclusive success, there were different representatives in Israel). And the fourth thing is that with all due respect to Sheriff’s incredible opening, it was more a matter of big money and coincidence – and not really of thorough or in-depth work. After all, the Moldovan team is ranked 180th in the world according to the FIFA ranking, and in its last meeting with the Israeli team, in March, it was defeated 4: 1 at home.
The second example I like to mention is Cyprus. Even on the neighboring island, there is no restriction on sharing and signing foreign players. And so, Apoel Nicosia recorded an unusual achievement in the 2011/12 season – one that in our football one can only dream of: a Champions League quarter-final. no less. Epoel went through a home stage that included teams like Zenit, Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk, and in the quarter-finals even managed to overtake Lyon on penalties. Only Real Madrid separated it from an even bigger sensation.
But has Cypriot football necessarily progressed? That achievement of Apoel was left alone in the dark. This season, for example, Omonia Nicosia (Cyprus’ representative in the Champions League) started their participation in the second round – and then also finished their way after 3-0 against Croatian Dinamo Zagreb. In the Europa League, Cyprus does not have a representative, and in the Conference League it has exactly the same amount as Israel – two representatives, Omonia and Anorthosis (which passed Hapoel Beer Sheva on the way). Did it improve the team? Cyprus is also currently ranked below Israel in the FIFA rankings (103) and is currently last in its home in the World Cup qualifiers.
In other words – football sensations can happen, but they do not necessarily indicate significant progress. In the end, in the two examples we saw, lowering the foreigner limit did not really improve football as a whole, but at most upgraded certain clubs at the top, allowing them to record historical achievements. Something that should not be ruled out in advance, but also not something that can be built on over time. There is no doubt that Israeli football needs change, but it is not certain that it is precisely the breaking of the limit on foreigners that will succeed in improving it. At least not in the long-term tests.