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Let merit, not reservation, win

June 30, 2006 11:44 IST

Veerappa Moily, chairman of the Oversight Committee to implement OBC quotas in institutions of higher education, has used a flawed argument to establish an oblique justification between the World Cup soccer tournament and the government's reservation policy. In the presence of soccer players from poorer nations in the competition, he sees "weaker sections" benefiting when they are given access to equal opportunity.

Mr Moily is right in saying this broadens the talent base and facilitates diversity. As a validation for reserving 27 per cent of the seats in institutions of higher education for backward castes, however, this is a weak line of reasoning.

To start with, these "weaker sections" are not participating in the World Cup as a result of quotas. They are at soccer's most significant global competition because they have earned the right to be there through sheer ability and talent, having come through gruelling qualification rounds. In one of the world's most lucrative sports competition, there is no scope for reservations.

In fact, should Mr Moily watch the European domestic leagues, he will notice a sizeable representation from these so-called weaker sections. Like the World Cup, the European leagues are unabashedly capitalist in nature.

Clubs that own the best footballing and managerial talent, irrespective of provenance, are the ones that stand to win and, in turn, become rich. For instance, the English club Chelsea, owned by an eccentric Russian millionaire and coached by a Portuguese, has just three English players in its starting line-up, and one of its key strikers, Didier Drogba, is from the Ivory Coast.

This year's European club champion, the Spanish club Barcelona, has two talismanic strikers in the Cameroonian Samuel Eto'o and the Brazilian Ronaldinho. All three are among the hottest, most sought after names in European club football today because of their prodigious abilities, not their origins.

The presence of so many foreign players in Europe provides a compelling counter argument against quotas in a free market economy. Europe is arguably the nerve centre of the vibrant global soccer industry.

A good fifth of the players in its clubs are non-European in origin, if not by actual citizenship. Few of them have the advantage of being nurtured in European soccer schools. Players like Ronaldinho honed their sublime dribbling skills on stony grounds in Brazil rather than on the manicured playing fields of Europe.

Ironically, too many of these non-European participants play against huge odds, not least of which is the egregious and disturbing surge in racism.

This is the response of white supremacists who perceive a loss of jobs for the boys because non-Europeans are muscling their way into European clubs. Not that this deters club owners one whit. As anyone who runs a business will tell you, there is no place for nationality or caste in the money-making stakes. An analogy can be drawn here with India's ITES/BPO industry.

Even as trade unionists and other activists in America and Europe use xenophobic arguments against outsourcing to India, big businesses continue to ignore the claims of such brazen chauvinism in favour of profit. Capitalism creates its own dynamism of equal opportunity that no amount of quotas can match.

Should Mr Moily look deeper, there are other economic lessons to be drawn from the world of soccer in terms of the advantages of a truly flexible global labour market.

The true globalisation of soccer took place with the Bosman ruling, which was adopted by the European soccer union in 1995. This was the result of an appeal to the European Court of Justice by a Belgian journeyman appealing for the right of professional players to move freely to other clubs at the end of their contracts.

Crucially, the Bosman ruling also prohibited domestic European leagues and the European football association, UEFA, from imposing quotas on foreign players. This has been the source of some friction since UEFA stipulated that three "foreign" players could be named in member-clubs per match for tournaments.

This restriction was subsequently diluted to "non-EU" players (same difference) which opened the floodgates to corruption with clubs rushing to give their non-EU stars European citizenship. Some attempts at reverse affirmative action recurred last year with the UEFA's members unanimously agreeing to a rule to increase the number of local players. But it is highly unlikely that too many clubs will agree to this.

As the World Cup enters the quarter final stage, policy makers around the world who ooh and aah over the sumptuous soccer skills would do well to ponder the fruits of the unfettered "movement of natural persons", to use WTO legalese, that are so openly on display.

This is emerging as the next sticking point in the global trade debate, but as the "beautiful game" demonstrates year after year, genuine access to equal opportunity, rather than quotas, will ultimately play a more effective role in enhancing global prosperity.

The views here are personal.

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Kanika Datta
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