Could we be more? Part Two: Foreign Invaders

(by Hugo Saye)

In the eyes of barstool pundits all over the country one of the biggest threats facing the nation’s sporting hopes is the number of foreign players now plying their trade in England’s green and pleasant land. Things may be looking up for now but as soon as the national team stutters the scape-goating will begin and you can be pretty sure the overseas players will bear the brunt of it.

This issue is becoming all the more important in the current climate as FIFA’s myopic (not to mention illegal) ‘6+5’ rule gathers worrying and dangerous momentum. It is very comforting to think that Sepp Blatter’s radical scheme will solve all our problems and suddenly result in a golden generation of English talent, but such cosseted thought is drastically flawed and ignores many much more fundamental problems with this country’s approach to football, some of which will be considered in my coming articles.

The reason that many of our club sides are packed with foreigners is simply that they tend to be better players; it is the job of the club manager to make his team as good as possible and if that requires foreign imports then the implication is that the local talent is not there. Wigan Athletic would not have gone out and signed Mohamed Diame if they had another Steven Gerrard lurking in their academy.

FIFA’s proposal is not about sending the elite foreign players home, the likes of Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres would not be leaving because they are exceptional talents who would comfortably be included in their respective team’s ‘5’, we are talking about the Mikaël Silvestres and the Philipp Degens, players who struggle to demand a first team spot. These players are not good enough to keep out the hypothetical international-standard English players whose development they are supposedly stunting, that they are deemed necessary tells us that in reality those local players are just not up to standard.

Let’s not kid ourselves for one second into thinking that anyone with the ability to take the England side to the next level is roaming Portsmouth’s training ground but is just being obscured by Angelos Basinas. Obviously this is a little simplistic and ignores the fact that developing young players takes time while an import can do his job immediately, but quite simply if another Wayne Rooney existed we would know about him and he would be playing regardless of the number of foreign journeymen filling his side’s bench.

Of course, a chance in a club’s senior team is vital in the development of young local players but those struggling to make the grade are not simply left to rot, they get their first team football elsewhere- there are currently 65 English players out on loan from Premier League clubs- and simply end up at a lower level if they do not make the grade.

And it is crucial to remember that in order for the shot blasting process of first team football to successfully refine raw ability into top sportsmen the natural talent must be there in the first place. If it is not then it does not matter how many chances the player is given at a top team he still will not be good enough to win England the World Cup, and it is here that we should be focusing: encouraging the development of world class English talent, not removing the foreign talent to create a void that will simply be filled with English pedestrianism.

Elite sport requires not just excellence but excellence in the very toughest of competitive environments. Thus the number of foreign players in the Premier League could actually help English football by forcing our most able players to constantly adapt and improve in order to reach the top and stay there. Remove this ultra-competitive element and you do not create space for young local talent to become the finest in the game, you simply allow mediocrity to flourish.

There is a suggestion that English football already embraces the ordinary far more than it should and in that light I present some statistics. These could be no more than coincidence, but perhaps they do provide some food for thought:

Argentina РWorld Cup wins: 2, Copa Am̩rica wins: 14, professional domestic leagues: 2, population per registered football club*: 11,924

Brazil РWorld Cup wins: 5, Copa Am̩rica wins: 8, professional domestic leagues: 4, population per registered football club: 6,492

Italy – World Cup wins: 4, European Championship wins: 1, professional domestic leagues: 2, population per registered football club: 3,604

France – World Cup wins: 1, European Championship wins: 2, professional domestic leagues: 2, population per registered football club: 3,234

Germany (West & United) – World Cup wins: 3, European Championship wins: 3, professional domestic leagues: 3, population per registered football club: 3,179

And those figures for England:

World Cup wins: 1, European Championship wins: 0, professional domestic leagues: 4, population per registered football club**: 1,286

The point is that with more national professional leagues than any top-level country other than Brazil (although the chaotic nature of the game there makes it very hard to empiricise) and 15,000 more registered clubs than any other national association on the planet, there are already more than enough opportunities for English footballers to play and prosper. Obviously, it would be churlish and mistaken to suggest that we would benefit from cutting the number of clubs, but the fact remains that there are far more opportunities to be a footballer in England than any other major nation in the game; removing foreign players from the top will only serve to reduce the levels of ability needed to get there even further.

Of course statistics are malleable and you could probably present equally damning figures that suggest a negative correlation between international success and the number of foreign players in each top league, but remember that the flood of overseas professionals is a relatively modern phenomenon: it does not explain the historical inadequacies that the above numbers suggest. It also ignores the fact that Italy’s Serie A has more than its fair share of foreign stars, as does Spain’s La Liga, and yet the national sides of those countries are World and European champions respectively.

To pin the England team’s failures on the number of foreign players in our leagues is short-sighted at best. Instead of blaming outsiders we need to be looking at ourselves and questioning why a nation of our size and stature in the game is simply not producing players that are good enough. We need a thorough self-examination and a number of changes implemented in order to make real progress. The sad truth is that we have only ever contested one major international final and Silvestre, Degen and Basinas have not done that to us, we have done it to ourselves.

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* All population per club estimates worked out using figures from FIFA Big Count (2006) unless otherwise stated.

** Population of England (as opposed to the United Kingdom) taken from National Statistics estimation (2008).