It seems to me that there are two distinctly different approaches national leagues use for relegating imports; the German way and the Austrian way. Every country has varying import rules but some are noticeably loose, such as Finland’s Maple League, and some are noticeably strict, such as Poland’s Topliga. I use Austria and Germany as examples because their national teams are the best in Europe and yet their national leagues are structured fundamentally different. The German Football League (GFL) is a semi-professional where players from all different nationalities can be paid to play football. Where the Austrian Football League (AFL) is fundamentally structured as an amateur league with a few exceptions per team. So why would the best countries for American Football have such drastically different structured leagues and whose system is better for generating the best domestic talent?
GERMAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE (GFL)
Let’s begin by looking at the German Football League. As previously stated, the GFL is structured more like a semi-professional league where any player can be paid for their services to the team whether they are foreign or domestic. There is a limit for A-class players, which are players that do not have EU citizenship, but this limit is the highest in Europe. That being said, any player with a EU passport can be paid to play and not count against the A-class limit. This allows for not only the best German talent to be paid for their services but the best European talent to be brought to Germany as imports by any given club. This makes the GFL a league that is full of talent, especially for teams with a large budget, which makes the top teams in Germany also the top teams within Europe. The problem is there is a huge performance gap between the GFL’s top teams and bottom teams because varying budgets. This semi-pro system makes having a large budget even more valuable because of the ability to have more players on a salary. So, although the GFL is a 16-team league, less than half of the teams can realistically compete for a championship any given year.
AUSTRIAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE (AFL)
The Austrian Football League is structured very differently. Since it is an amateur league, every player who gets paid counts as an A-class player, regardless of nationality. Each team is only allowed to dress 2 or 3 A-class players (depending on previous season’s standings) for each game. This means that Austrian or EU passport players typically do not receive payment for play because that would cause them to take up an A-class slot. This does not mean foreigners cannot play in the AFL, they just have to prove that they are studying or working within Austria so they do not have a A-class distinction. So, you would think that this system would balance the powers within the league more than the German system but actually the last six Austrian Bowls have been won by just two teams. And there is also a large performance gap between the top teams in the AFL and the bottom teams, even with it just being an 8-team league. Another problem the AFL has is that some of its best talent leaves to receive payment in countries that allow EU players to get paid. This would be a trend that would potentially be harmful for the competition level of the AFL.
DEVELOPMENT OF DOMESTIC PLAYERS
I do not think it is a real debate which league structure produces the most talented teams because it is obvious that a league in which talented players can be recruited via salary is going to produce highly talented teams. The real question is, which league structure is better for the respective country’s domestic players? That is a question that requires one to consider many things. First, I want to be clear what I mean by domestic players. Domestic players are the players within the league that would be eligible to play for that country’s national team. So, I mean Germans playing in the GFL and Austrians playing in the AFL. I also want to eliminate the coaching aspect of each league. Each league gives the clubs the option to hire professional coaches so this aspect of domestic player development is consistent.
PLAY THE BEST TO BE THE BEST (GFL)
The first argument to consider is that playing and/or practicing against the best will make your domestic players better in the long run. This would fall more in line with the GFL’s approach to import rules because if you can bring in the best talent from all over Europe and more A-class players, then the domestic players on your team will get better because they will be competing against better competition. It is the “iron sharpens iron” way of developing national talent. This is an approach that I know works, especially in a practice setting. I have seen offensive tackles develop rapidly because they practice against an import every day, or a defensive back develops because he is practicing against import receivers. Playing and practicing against talented players can truly elevate another player’s game.
Now a counter argument would be that all the imports brought in by clubs would just be taking the spots of domestic players, so if imports are limited, then clubs have to play and develop domestic players. This would fall more in line with the Austrian approach to import rules and there is some legitimacy to that claim. Game experience is invaluable and if a league can maximize game experience for their domestic players, it can only benefit their national team. I believe this to be true as well but I also believe it is a less effective way to develop domestic talent. It is almost a quality vs. quantity argument. Just because there are more domestic players starting on the top teams in the AFL does not necessarily mean this is more beneficial for Austria’s national team. Remember, we are talking about developing the best players in the country for the national team, so if a German club happens to have a national team caliber domestic player, they are probably not going to replace him with an import. However, that German national team player is practicing and playing with more professional players, causing his play to elevate.
INVEST IN YOUTH DEVELOPMENT (AFL)
However, the more domestic players actually playing in games for the AFL is not the only argument, or even the best argument, for the AFL. I think one product of having limited imports is it causes clubs to invest more into the youth programs. Clubs knowing they can’t just fill voids or weaknesses on their men’s teams with imported players may cause the clubs in the AFL to spend more time developing their younger players, knowing that the success of their men’s team will depend on these players in the future. The AFL also allows talented players as young as 17 to play on the men’s teams which is several years younger than GFL regulations. This allows young talent to receive the assumed better coaching and higher competition of the men’s team. This argument could be supported by the Austrian U-19 team defeating the German U-19 team in the last European Junior Championships.
WHICH LEAGUE IS BETTER?
All in all, it is really hard to distinguish which league system develops domestic talent better because both national teams neck and neck. I guess time will tell. I personally have a hard time picking a side because I will always advocate for higher competition but at the same time, I think every club should invest as much as possible into their youth programs. I guess only time will tell.