It is 15 years since a little-known and rather average Belgian footballer decided his club was acting illegally by preventing him from changing teams. Now the name Jean-Marc Bosman resonates through nearly every heated debate about foreign footballers and their impact on the game.

The controversy resurfaced late last year when the team Inter Milan fielded a squad which did not feature a single Italian player during a Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League match against Slovakian team Artmedia.

Eleven foreigners on a football field is a disgrace. Italian football is ever more unrecognisable, claimed La Padania, the newspaper of right-wing political party Lega Nord. Many observers would say such sentiment is unsurprising from a political party whose members include a faction proposing the creation of a separate northern Italian state, Padania. However, the fact remains that La Padania was only contributing to an ongoing debate regarding the number of foreign players in Italy, and indeed in teams across Europe an issue that is preoccupying those with a genuine interest in the good of the game. At the same time, the discussion must be treated sensitively to ensure it is not confused with the actions of a minority of fans blighting the Italian game with racist chanting. But what is the truth behind the claims? Is Italian top-flight football overrun with foreign players and ultimately does it affect the quality of the league?

Figures from Italys Lega Nazionale Professionisti (Professional Football League) show 556 registered players in the countrys Serie A league, of whom 195, or 35 per cent, are non-Italian. Of these 195 players, 102 are extra-comunitari, that is from outside the European Union (EU). The number of foreign players continues to rise steadily up a fifth in the past five years and one of the chief reasons for this is Bosman.

In 1990, the Belgian footballer was denied changing teams by a ruling that stated both clubs had to agree a transfer fee before a move could take place, even though his contract had expired. Bosman filed a lawsuit against his Belgian club, FC Lige, and the Belgian and European football authorities, arguing the rules prevented EU citizens from having freedom of movement in employment. Five years later the European Court of Justice ruled in his favour. Since then, foreign players from within the EU have been free to move between clubs once their contracts have expired with no transfer fee. This is known as a Bosman transfer.

Crucially, the Bosman ruling also prevented domestic football leagues in the EU, and also UEFA, from restricting the number of foreign players from other parts of the EU. Domestic leagues in different countries may still impose their own restrictions on non-EU players. In Italy, any club buying a non-EU player must first sell one already on its books, although since 2001 there has been no restriction on how many non-EU players a club can field at any one time.

A concern about the Bosman ruling is that with more players now moving freely around Europe, fewer top teams are investing in players from smaller clubs in their own countries because they seem overpriced. This deprives the clubs of much-needed revenue and also hinders the development of future home-grown international players.

Another debate centres on the impact of foreign players on the quality of the league. In Italy, those in favour say they add skill and flair that inevitably increases the entertainment value of Serie A. Critics say that by preventing the emergence of younger talent they are harming the quality of the Italian national team in the long term.

Stefano Blin, sports journalist for Agence France Presse (AFP), is understanding about why clubs look abroad. The pressures to succeed in modern-day football mean most coaches dont have time to invest in an academy and try to bring players through, he says. It is easier and cheaper to take established out-of-contract players in an effort to get instant results.

Theres no doubt that on a technical level foreign players improve the standard of the league. he continues. But if home-grown players are good enough they will come through: the cream rises to the top. Look at Juventus they are the best team in Italy right now and that is based chiefly on their Italian players.

Whatever the advantages or disadvantages of foreign players, the European football authorities have decided to act. A commission comprising representatives of the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (Italian Football Federation), the Football League and the Associazione Italiana Calciatori (Footballers Association) is currently assessing the impact of non-Italian players. Meanwhile, UEFA has sought to unravel some of the effects of the Bosman ruling, declaring that from July 2006 all European clubs must include at least four home-grown players in their 25-man squads entered into Champions League and UEFA Cup matches. This will rise to eight by 2008.

So how do Romes clubs fare amid this controversy? Following the Inter Milan- game, Roma and Lazio started with five and three non-Italian players on the pitch respectively in their own matches. Given football supporters thirst for success, it may be fair to suggest they would accept any additions to their squads that might improve the quality.

However, it is here that an often-overlooked factor arises. In essence, fans still want to be able to identify with their team and to do so they require players in the image of themselves. Supporters may stretch to accepting those arriving from otherparts of Italy, though even then some bluster from the player about supporting the team as a boy will help smooth the way. Those coming from abroad on a free Bosman deal are often viewed, unfairly or not, as mercenaries, enjoying massive salaries as the club pours into players pockets the money saved on a transfer fee.

Identity with the fans is important, adds Blin. They want players they can feel a connection with, and thats why everyone wants to see home-grown players doing well. Romes two clubs are a case in point: for Roma the hero is born and bred Roman captain Francesco Totti, who has rejected talk of a big-money move and pledged loyalty to his team. At Lazio, Paolo Di Canio, himself once a foreign import in Britain, is now an even bigger hero after returning to his home club.