It’s easy to talk a good game on immigration

Published by The i Paper & The Independent (1st February, 2016)

There is sometimes a single moment when talented young footballers do something so outrageous they declare themselves stars on the national stage. I was fortunate to be at Goodison Park when a stocky local kid scored a superbly arrogant goal against Arsenal in 2002, leading commentators to tell viewers: ‘Remember this name: Wayne Rooney.’ And earlier this month, another teenager showed similar aplomb with a slice of sublime skill that underscored another rapidly growing reputation.

Since this is not a sports column, I will not shower more superlatives on Dele Alli’s amazing goal against Crystal Palace. Suffice to say that it ensures that this teenager from Milton Keynes is the latest talking point in the national obsession that is football – and English fans can be relieved that he has chosen to play for the Three Lions rather than Nigeria’s Super Eagles. Yet his rise is rather surprising given all the dire warnings in recent years about foreign players killing off home-grown talent.

Indeed, there is a sense of irony that Greg Dyke, the cheerleader for imposing import controls on footballers, is standing down from running the England’s Football Association just as sports writers are raving about the rise of a supremely talented crop of English youngsters. At Spurs alone, alongside Alli are two more sparkling stars in Harry Kane and Eric Dier, while my own club, Everton, can boast potentially the best British defender for years in John Stones alongside Ross Barkley, who made his England debut at the age of 19.

In many ways, football can be seen as a metaphor for the wider immigration debate. There has been endless rhetoric about ‘mercenaries’ and ‘divers’  coming to Britain and ruining the national game. Often this scaremongering is hypocritical given the personal records of those in charge when buying players, appointing managers or chasing talented youngsters to defect. Meanwhile, xenophobic talk is used to mask damaging underlying deficiencies in the sport, while wealth disparities grow ever bigger and life at the bottom gets tougher.

Dyke, the former BBC Director-General, has spent much of his time at the FA banging on about foreigners in ways that must win applause from the most devout followers of Nigel Farage. In his first speech, Dyke declared that clubs must cut the number of overseas players if England wanted to compete seriously on the national stage, quoting figures that showed declining proportions of native players since the launch of the money-drenched Premier League. Even in his latest interview, he was still complaining of ‘bog standard’ cheap imports.

Certainly the number of domestic players on display at top levels has fallen -–although few fans can really regret watching many of the world’s best players perform each week, often in spanking new stadiums. Home-grown players have had to raise their game to compete, while clubs learned important lessons on diet, fitness, lifestyle and tactics from abroad. Some leading lights pushing quotas say we should only let in superstars, but this is both discriminatory and false logic; after all, who would have predicted one of this season’s stars to have been an Algerian bought by Leicester City for a pittance from Le Havre?

It is also true that the English national team has failed to win top tournaments – but again, it is fraudulent to take cheap shots at the influx of foreign players. Just 13 non-British players turned out on the Premier League’s inaugural day in 1992, almost all of them from Europe. And two years later, England failed to qualify for the World Cup for the third time in two decades. Since then the qualification record at least has improved; indeed, the national team won every game in the fight to make this year’s European Championships.

Like so many politicians, Dyke has talked tough on immigration. Yet when a director at Manchester United, the club spent £4m on two English players but more than 10 times as much on 12 players from overseas. Even as he bemoaned home-grown youngsters being squeezed out at elite levels, he endorsed the FA chasing the Belgian-born son of Balkan parents to play for England. And he admits his much-heralded new visa rules would have stopped just 42 foreigners from gaining work permits over five years.

Meanwhile, little is done to stop any dubious foreign owners taking over and running clubs. And it was the sports minister, Tracey Crouch, who put pressure on the Premier League – which just signed a £5.1bn television deal – to double its pathetic offering to grassroots football to £100m a year.  Britain has almost 50 times fewer coaches per registered player as Spain. As school playing fields disappear and local authority budgets diminish, it is little wonder participation in the sport has declined – although here, at least, as with his attempts to drive through desperately needed organisational reform, Dyke has been on the side of the angels.

Nationally, we see politicians abuse the immigration debate to obscure failures: to build enough houses, provide enough schools, modernise health services, sort out social care, tax multinationals or create a humane asylum system. Similarly, the argument over foreign players has proved false, flawed and a diversion from serious issues confronting the future of the sport. It is easy to talk a good game. Far harder to deliver one. But at the very least stop blaming everything that goes wrong on foreign players – and enjoy the skills of the next generation of England stars.

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