Don’t blame foreign players for England’s early exit

Published by The Independent on Sunday (22nd June, 2014)

So, we must suffer for another four years: the World Cup is not coming home to the nation that invented the game. We all knew in our hearts that England was not going to grab that golden trophy, but for flickering moments in the first match there were signs that our football had entered the modern era. Then it was back to reality: a disjointed and ponderous team dumped out in the starting stages by a country with a population half that of London.

Now there are the inquests, the interrogation of supposed national failure. With tedious predictability, pundits and ex-professionals line up to kick their favourite target: the foreign footballer. Or more precisely, the number of foreigners playing in the Premier League, which they argue squeezes out decent young Englishmen. Former England captain Sol Campbell talked on Radio 4’s Today about English talents being crowded out, echoing concerns voiced earlier by England manager Roy Hodgson and his sidekick Gary Neville.

The fact that there are tentative signs of a flowering of youthful English talent, despite the painful defeat by Uruguay, seems to be ignored. Instead we will no doubt see Greg Dyke, chairman of the Football Association, intensify his efforts to limit the number of non-European Union stars signed by top clubs. “We know that we have a problem,” he declared on Friday.

He should know better: this is populist nonsense that defies economic or historic logic. It is one more dismal echo of the immigration debate infecting our nation, another expression of British jobs for British workers. But even now, approaching two centuries after the landmark Corn Laws debate, we still have people putting forward the self-defeating idea that a sector is strengthened by artificially protecting it from foreign rivals.

To underline this fallacy, take a detour from football to look at the Ethiopian shoe market. Ethiopia is a country with a strong leather industry that opened up markets at the start of this century and saw Chinese imports capture more than 80 per cent of local trade. No wonder, since many indigenous firms were using old-fashioned production methods;  one in three of them collapsed and nearly half shrunk in size. But the survivors modernised, innovated and fought back with new plants – and today the leather sector is booming and the country has shoe firms exporting worldwide.

Back to football. Few doubt the flow of 1,527 foreign players into the Premier League has improved top-flight football in Britain, making it arguably the most challenging and certainly the most entertaining among top European leagues. The majority have come from Europe – 169 from France alone – underlining the futility of trying to limit the number of foreign players unless the country pulls out of the EU. Mind you, I doubt Ukip would win many votes by campaigning against Brussels on the basis of sending Eden Hazard back home to Belgium.

We should be proud that 66 players entitled to represent England performed regularly last season in such a competitive environment as the Premier League. No wonder those young stars looked so sharp against Italy having managed to break through into this tough league. It is simply bizarre to believe that the likes of Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley would be stronger internationals if banned from playing regularly with, and against, the likes of Luis Suarez.

The Italians, like the Germans, also have high percentages of foreign players in their top leagues although this does not seem to stop either of them doing well at international level. Yet Italy’s coach, Cesare Prandelli, has also complained that this influx is strangling the careers of young players. After their embarrassing flop in Brazil, perhaps Spain should demand more foreign players in La Liga to lift their national game?

Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper, who wrote a superb statistics-based book called Soccernomics, point out that the English team has done significantly better in major championships since the inception of the Premier League. This may not be much comfort for fans sitting glumly on their sofas as Suarez hit his second goal against England, but for supporters of my age it is impossible to forget  those bleak times when England failed to qualify for the finals. This implies that, despite ceaseless setbacks, foreign competition has had a positive effect on our finest players.

The authors argue that a bigger problem is the failure of parochial English players to travel abroad, which would expose them to alternative styles of football distinct from those high-tempo games that make the Premier League so electrifying. Look how many players in teams such as Brazil and Uruguay play in foreign countries, after all. “It’s not inconceivable England could win a World Cup with no English players playing in England,” said Szymanski.

There are many other issues. Anyone who has witnessed youth football in this country knows that too many coaches have a depressing fixation on size and strength over skill, alongside a determination to win at all costs rather than encourage the best talent. The boring long-ball game remains entrenched; indeed, Dyke’s own organisation is guilty of still promoting people with antediluvian attitudes at junior levels. As the astute Arsene Wenger says, the core problem is poor youth coaching producing players lacking basic skills.

The Premier League is the most potent instrument of soft power our nation possesses. Instead of seeking to diminish it after defeats by two better teams with higher world rankings than England, the people in charge and the professionals who earned so much money from its success should tackle obvious shortcomings that have long dogged the game. Instead, like so many other parts of society, they blame the foreigners.

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