Wrong to point finger at football’s foreign legion

Chelsea's John Mikel Obe and Diego Costa (right) before a pre-season friendly at Stamford Bridge, London. PIC: PA
Chelsea's John Mikel Obe and Diego Costa (right) before a pre-season friendly at Stamford Bridge, London. PIC: PA
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The failure of England’s football team has been blamed on a shortage of home-grown players and too many foreigners. But a new report says this isn’t the case. Chris Bond reports.

BACK in May, before England’s dismal exit from the World Cup in Brazil, the Football Association’s commission unveiled its four-point plan to boost English football.

Among the review’s proposals was a possible ban on non-European Union players outside of the top flight and a reduction in non-home-grown players in Premier League squads. The suggestions were in response to growing concerns that we aren’t producing enough good, young talent.

These concerns were reinforced during the summer when England were knocked out of the World Cup in the group stages without mustering a single victory, which only served to highlight the fact that our chances of winning a major international tournament in the foreseeable future are about as likely as Lionel Messi signing for Barnsley.

Unlike at previous tournaments where fans and pundits have talked up our chances of winning, this time round there were no great expectations. Even though the team’s failure to reach the second round was greeted with disappointment it came as no great surprise.

But this in itself is cause for alarm. Football is certainly our most popular sport and tomorrow sees the new Premier League season kick off, with many predicting it will be one of the closest and most exciting in its 22-year history.

There’s no doubt that the Premier League has become a massive global business. The new TV deal which runs from 2013-16 is worth nearly £5.5bn, with over £2bn of this coming from the sale of overseas rights.

Little wonder, then, that so many players are keen to climb on board this lucrative gravy train.

Despite its claim to be “the most watched league in the world” there have long been concerns about its impact on the England team with fewer young, homegrown players getting the chance to play on the big stage.

However, a new report published today by the Adam Smith Institute challenges the view that restricting the number of overseas players would benefit the national game, claiming there is no link between the amount of time home-grown stars play in the Premier League and the performance of the English team.

The study, the first research of its kind, found that the same goes for the other major leagues in Europe — Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A.

It also pours cold water on the FA’s plan to crack down on foreign players in the Premier League, saying it would damage the league’s quality and success in European club competitions.

The report, Sweet FA – Why foreign player crackdowns hurt English football, has been pieced together using Fifa’s world rankings, as well as data recording the number of hours played by English footballers over a period stretching more than 20 years.

Its author, Ben Southwood, head of policy at the economic think-tank, says the findings challenge the idea that “importing” foreign footballers to the UK means English players have fewer opportunities to play for the top clubs.

“It is widely believed that England’s perceived under-performance at recent international competitions owes something to the reduced amount of minutes English players are playing in the Premier League, but up until now no-one’s really studied the question with any kind of rigour,” he says.

“My numbers are not final but they suggest there is no real link between the amount of football English players play in the Premier League, or across the top four European Leagues, and the performance of England’s national team. If having less experience is a problem, then it is being balanced out by a higher quality of experience.”

In other words, there’s no evidence to suggest that having a bigger pool of English players would lead to the national team doing better.

On the face of it, this perhaps doesn’t seem to make sense, but if you look at some of the report’s statistics they make for interesting reading.

Much has been made of the fact that less than a third of players in the Premier League are English, compared with 61 per cent of Spaniards in La Liga and 49 per cent of home-grown players in the Bundesliga. However, in 1994 England failed to even qualify for the World Cup in the US and were ranked 18th in the world, despite the fact that 70 per cent of Premier League players were English.

That same year, English players in the top flight played more than 10,000 hours of football, compared with 7,995 hours for home-grown Spanish players in their main domestic league in 2009-10 – the year that they were crowned world champions.

But does number crunching tell the whole story? One of the issues highlighted by the FA commission was a lack of playing opportunities for 18 to 20-year-old players at top clubs.

However, Southwood believes it could be less a question of opportunities and more one of talent. “What’s interesting is that during the last few years there have been almost no English players playing abroad in the top leagues in Spain, Italy or Germany.

“But if you look at those countries they have a lot of players playing abroad and to me, and this is something that needs to be tested, this suggests a talent issue – that there maybe aren’t enough good English players to fill up the Premier League, let alone go abroad.”

However, the conundrum of why England consistently fail to do well at major international football tournaments is not easily solved. If it was then someone would have done so by now.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, former England and Sheffield Wednesday legend Chris Waddle said the Premier League is a “fantastic product” but doesn’t do the national team any favours.

He feels the debate about the state of football in this country just keeps going round in circles. “After Spain won the World Cup everyone was saying we need to copy them, now they’re saying we should copy Germany. But it’s not about copying Spain or Germany, it’s about what suits England and finding out what we’re good at and creating our own identity.”

Waddle, who played for England in the World Cup semi-final defeat against West Germany in Turin in 1990, has been calling for root-and-branch reform of English football for the past 20 years.

For him the question is less about the number of English players playing in the top flight and more to do with the coaching given to youngsters up and down the county from an early age.

“If you go and watch a kids’ match at a weekend it’s all about the result and not the performance. Everyone likes to win but at that age we should be educating them and teaching them how to play the game and that way you can start to have a production line of young talent. But we put pressure on six, seven and eight-year-olds which is just ridiculous, other countries don’t do that,” he says.

“If Messi and [Spanish World Cup winner] Iniesta had been English they would have been turned away as kids because it’s all about pace and power instead of flair and technique.”

Everyone from armchair fans to pundits and former players has their views on the problems facing our national team, but as FA chairman Greg Dyke reiterated again at last weekend’s Community Shield, “doing nothing is not an option”.

Whatever the reason for England’s continuing under-achievement on the global footballing stage one thing is for sure – the odds of us winning the World Cup in 2018 look as distant as that bright, sunny day when Bobby Moore famously held the gleaming Jules Rimet trophy aloft on the Wembley turf.

Premier League’s overseas stars

ERIC CANTONA: His name is mentioned quietly in these parts, but although the charismatic Frenchman became a hero across the Pennines, he first showed us his Gallic flair with Leeds United.

GIANFRANCO Zola: He may have been small, but what the Italian lacked in height he made up for in ability. He was one of the first foreign players to really set the Premier League alight and played the game with a smile on his face.

THIERRY Henry: As good looking as he was talented, the 1998 World Cup winner brought a certain “va-va-voom” both on and off the pitch.

CRISTIANO RONALDO: One of the greatest ever footballers and arguably the best to have graced the Premier League.