Foreigners and English Football

Looking forward to next season’s title race, my Arsenal-fan cousin swears that his team are in with a shout. I take his claims like I do my chips, with a pinch of salt. “They need a big man in the middle. They mess about with it too much. Almunia’s hair is rubbish”are my usual responses. He starts to explain his reasoning and although I’m not really listening, one name does break my glazed look. Andrei Arshavin.

Hearing his name brings back stark memories of that breathtaking 4-4 Premier League game in April when Arsenal turned up at Anfield with a one man band. The 27-year-old put on the finest solo performance I’ve witnessed since I saw some little Russian fella run the Dutch ragged at Euro 2008.

Liverpool’s 4-4 draw with Arshavin that night had everything a contest between two of the so-called-top-four should; quality, drama, excitement, late goals and world class players on show. What it didn’t have, was a single England international in either starting line-up.

That may not be, and probably isn’t, a big surprise. In the Premier League these days, foreign players outnumber English players quite significantly. But is this a big a deal?

Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA believes a change is crucial in order to restore national identities of football leagues, make European competition more competitive and also help national teams by promoting the playing chances of native youngsters. Sepp’s plan is to limit the amount of foreign players a team are allowed to field. Many people agree with his principal intentions. Many people don’t.

Blatter would like to implement ‘the 6+5 rule,’ meaning a team could only field five ‘foreigners’ in their starting line-up. UEFA currently impose a foreign-quota rule, whereby 8 players from a squad of 25 must be ‘home-grown.’

The terms ‘home-grown’ and ‘foreigner’ are grey areas. Throw in nationalised players, places of birth, passports, grand parents and fairy god-mothers and you have a whole new set of arguments. Interestingly, last season, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Spain’s Cesc Fabregas were classed as home-grown players whilst playing for Manchester United and Arsenal, respectively. This is because they were trained at their English clubs for at least 3 years between the ages of 16 and 21. Home-grown they might be, but eligible to play for England they are not, unless they apply for nationalisation – another issue close to Sepp’s heart.

Blatter again stamped his feet, this time about the number of players taking on foreign citizenship and then appearing for their new countries in international games. He highlighted Brazil as chief culprits, even claiming that half the players at the 2014 World Cup could be Brazilian born. Therefore, another FIFA proposal aims to make nationalisation much more difficult.

The powers that be may have football’s interests at heart but their propositions are far from cut and dry. Stirringly, although unlikely, it is entirely feasible that a team like Arsenal, with their policy of buying young players from all around the world, could easily fulfil the home-grown rule without actually fielding a single Englishman. It is also possible that these players could ignore or be ignored by their motherlands, choose to become nationalised and represent the England team – next stop, square one.

For some football fans, biennial international tournaments might be their most realistic chance of supporting a team to honours and so any notion that may improve their national side’s chances would be welcomed.

Michel Platini, Johan Cruyff and England vice-captain, Steven Gerrard are all high profile advocates of introducing a cap on foreign players, believing that the England team will benefit the most.

Of all Europe’s top footballing nations it may be no coincidence that current World Cup holders, Italy, have the lowest percentage of foreigners playing in their top tier. (World Cup runners-up, France, are second, followed closely by European champions, Spain.) The Premier League has the highest.

So how did England fare internationally when there weren’t as many ‘foreigners’?

But regarding England’s ineptness at major tournaments, can we really lay blame at the feet of Vidic, Essien, Van Persie et al? For 53 years, England have been serial underachievers. Since 1966, there have been 10 European Championships and 10 World Cups. England failed to qualify for 6 of those tournaments, and of the rest, can only point to two semi-final appearances as highlights.

Interestingly, before 2008, the last time England failed to qualify for a major tournament was for the World Cup in USA in 1994. Qualifying for that tournament began in 1992, a year when just over 20% of Premier League players were non-English, compared to the 63% foreigners that appeared in the opening day line-ups for 2007/08.

The point is that we botched qualification to USA’94 when foreign players were a rarity rather than a majority.

Considering England’s current form (under a foreign manager, no less) can it not be argued that it may even be the continental skills and tactical nous of the foreign contingent that are having a positive effect on our National side? A 100% record in the qualifying campaign thus far and 7th in the FIFA world rankings, one place behind Argentina and 3 ahead of recent World and European Champions, France. At this moment in time, the current England side is strong and it is competing.

Perhaps it’s not actually top-class players such as Essien and Van Persie that the typical England fan has a problem with; but rather the ‘average’ foreign player blocking the progressive path of our youngsters. But right now, a club manager could pay over the odds for a young Englishmen here or he can get a better or equal player overseas for less money. Transfer dealings are part and parcel of good management and any rule aiming to cap the amount of foreign players in a team will only serve to add to an English player’s already inflated value.

If foreign players are good enough to be bought, then they are good enough to play. If we were to argue that only the best foreigners should play and the rest should either step up or ship out, then surely it would be fair to aim that same argument at the young Englishmen failing to dislodge them from the team.

The reason the 2014 World Cup may display over 50% of Brazilians is because there are plenty of them good enough to play. For kids, growing up in the drug-run shanty towns of a country afflicted so heavily by poverty, football provides a passion in a life containing little else; a far cry from the majority of Britain’s youth, where many rotund teenage boys spend their weekends playing football on the Xbox instead of on the field.

To improve the level of domestic talent in England, the FA must continue to place emphasis on grassroots football. If applied successfully, being coached from a young age will prepare a player, both technically and mentally, for the competitive nature of a professional club. Indeed, if lucky enough to make the grade, these young Pro’s should be embracing the competition for places, be it from a foreign player, an established England international or one of their peers.

The path to the first team could be made a little easier by taking away some of the obstacles (in this case, foreign players) but will this really help the player in the long run? Would this not be akin to lowering grade requirements for wannabe students so that it’s easier to get into a university? It’s a false economy.

Reducing the number of foreigners in the Premier League will ultimately lower the standard of the football being played, so how can that possibly help the international players who play in it every week? Arsene Wenger, a critic of the foreign quota proposal, argues that, ‘If you put the level of the class down, it does not necessarily make the bad students better. It makes them worse.”

If the future of English youngsters becomes dependent on our club’s sacrifice of top players, and maybe risk the future success of our chosen colours, would the fans accept it? Should we dilute the weekly showpieces of high octane, top class football every week in order to see if our national team could surpass the efforts of the previous 53 years?

The pool of talent that Fabio Cappello has to choose from is not Olympic-sized, but it’s certainly no puddle. The players at his disposal are of proven quality because they’ve pushed their way through the system of their respective clubs and are competing amongst the rigour of the bustling, pacey, unforgiving, multicultural Premier League.

Competition drives the desire to improve and trying to succeed beyond what you’ve mastered is the key to development.

The ugliest problem of the modern game is that of money. For the time being this doesn’t look like changing, therefore big clubs will always have first pick of the best young footballers; either through their own elite academies or by throwing the highest amount of money into their pockets. Perhaps a cap on salary, prize funds and TV revenue would be a more effective solution to the problems outlined by Mr. Blatter.

Until the day a new system is put in place, small clubs will continue to rely on clever management, fine scouting, tactical nous, decision making, hard graft, extra training, quick thinking and individual brilliance in order to bridge the gap between themselves and bigger clubs. The game of football as it should be.

For the average English football fan, there’s really nothing much to complain about. England are playing well with high hopes for South Africa 2010 and the future certainly looks bright after the Under-21s showing in the European Championships this year. The Premier League and Champions League are as entertaining as they’ve ever been, providing moments of brilliance on a consistent basis.

If foreign quotas were imposed, then the big boys of English football might become less untouchable, adding a more competitive edge to the league. European competition might become more open and entertaining, displaying much stronger national identities. England might produce better players for the national team and they might eventually win something again. And everyone might live happily ever after.

There are simply no guarantees. So, if I was pushed to give my opinion, possibly stemmed from my fondness for familiarity or maybe just my indolence, I’d be happy to leave things as they are; because as the old adage almost goes, ‘If it’s working alright, don’t meddle’.

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  1. Gary Simpson 9 July, 2009
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