Football is a truly global game. To an extent it was ever thus, but legislative, social, financial, economic and technological change means the movement of players across and between continents has become the defining feature of the modern game.
No where is this more visible than in the English Premier League. The influx of foreign owners, players and money has brought major benefits for cities, clubs, players and fans across the country. Stadiums have been revamped and rebuilt, training grounds redeveloped, standards and quality have improved. But there is now a general consensus that it has brought challenges too, particularly for the national side.
The biggest of these is the decreasing presence of English players playing within the Premier League itself. According to the BBC’s latest study, the proportion of home country players playing in the Premier League is just 32%, down from 35% in 2007-08 and, according to Opta, significantly lower than all other major European leagues. In La Liga, Spaniards account for nearly double the proportion of home country players – 59% of all minutes played – while in Germany’s Bundesliga, Germans make up roughly half of all minutes played.
If English players are not able to develop and compete at the top level, what chance does the national side realistically have? When we consider young English players, it becomes even more worrying. Only a handful of the current U21 squad play regularly in the Premier League, with the problem seemingly most acute up-front – the entire U-21 squad contributed just nine Premier League goals last season – less than 1% of the total scored in the division.
More subtly, some have commented that this trend may even explain why top players like Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard can look so assured for Liverpool and Chelsea, yet comparatively ordinary for England – they simply are not surrounded by the technical brilliance or wizardry of their club team mates drawn from overseas.
So if we agree that this represents a growing issue for the English national side, what can we do about it? People generally call for a limit to be placed on the number of foreign players clubs can sign or play on any given match day, or should EU employment regulations make that challenging, then they call on the Premier League to at least properly enforce existing work permit restrictions which should make the signing of non-EU players an exception.
If neither is possible, then clubs could be financially incentivised to field English players over their foreign counterparts – there is surely enough money floating around the Premier League for funds to be distributed to encourage this behaviour amongst clubs.
“But won’t that mean Premier League clubs being forced to field inferior players?” objectors ask, scared their team will suffer, or the quality of football they pay to watch will decline. Well, in the short term perhaps. The Premier League has been lit up by foreign talents like Zola, Henry, Drogba and van Persie for two decades. But, and without intending disrespect to them, would the Premier League have been a poorer place had Clarence Acuna, Pascal Cygan or Kleberson never set foot on an English pitch? And over the medium term, it would definitely encourage academies and coaches to develop the kind of English talent so many column inches tell us we are devoid of.
“Can the solution to increased global competition be to build a wall around English football?” some will question. Undertaken alone, then the answer would surely be no. The ‘grassroots level’ issues facing English coaching and players would persist without other actions. But as with trade tariffs for developing nations, sometimes a degree of protection from competition is required to assemble the foundations required to compete in the first place. If the slots available in the top flight are so limited, if even Premier League academies are now full of talented foreign youngsters like Adnan Januzaj or John Guidetti, then putting some limits on the numbers of overseas players would surely given English players more of a chance to develop.
Or would it? After all, haven’t foreign players, managers and owners, by their very presence in the Premier League, brought with them new skills, practices and tactical advancements to the English game? Would English players and coaches not be at risk from diminishing this influence, and getting left behind? And anyway, England failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1994 as the Premier League was in it’s infancy, and the numbers of English players playing in the top flight were much higher. There is no guarantee that a more English top flight makes for a better national side.
What do you think? Would you risk the quality of your side and it’s ability to compete at home and in Europe for the sake of the national side? Would such limits even work? Have your say in the poll and comments below, and look out for the next part in this series asking whether, as a footballing community, we are really prepared to pull out all of the stops to improve our national team.