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Could the Problem for England Be…England?

England are already under way in their friendly against the only team in Europe whose fans are more embarrassed than theirs are, and amidst all the shuffling and refusing to meet anyone’s gaze, the time has come to say something about foreign players in the Premier League. This is the latest landing spot for the little ship of blame that, like a sadder Flying Dutchman, has been circling the globe since the end of the last World Cup, trying to find a place to call home. It’s been to “England players are selfish,” rounded “England players are lazy,” and made a stop at “England players are overpaid twits.” It’s weaved its way through the islands of “Our coach is terrible.” It’s dropped anchor in WAGs (but who hasn’t, in some of them) and forged its way bravely through the canal locks of “Failed youth development.” Now, with the winds of fools’ opinions filling its tabloid-paper sails, it’s looking for rest in the harbor of “Too many foreigners.”

Like the overstrained nautical metaphor in which I have grimly clothed it, the idea that there are too many foreign players in the Premier League possesses a certain logic at the same time as it reeks of right-little-island nostalgia and the bad parts of good Kinks songs. (I’m not prepared to concede that there are bad Kinks songs.) The logic is basically that, since players improve by playing in top-flight matches, the English talent pool would be stronger if more English players had important roles in their teams. But how can they, it says, gesticulating dramatically from its pedestal, when those roles are being filled by a legion of foreign players drawn by vast riches and the lure of Mancunian cuisine? The apparent clarity of this argument has made it popular with thinkers ranging from Gerry Sutcliffe to Steve Coppell to Alex Ferguson (!) to Steven Gerrard to the Prime Minister to the ominously quiet glowering lad with the shaved head who’s rubbing his unexplained bruises in the seat at the back of the bus. It’s even spread to Wales. At times, Arsène Wenger must sigh into his wine glass and feel like a voice in the wilderness.

What’s never made sense to me about this argument is anything. Look at it this way: the xenophobes might have a point if Wayne Rooney were rotting on the bench at Barnsley. But the players on the England team are currently stars in the Premier League! How is it going to make them better to reduce the quality of the talent they play against each week? Maybe it would improve the English pool as a whole to kick out a few Spaniards and throw local boys in their spots, but the English pool as a whole doesn’t play in the Euro qualifiers. And the team that does play in the Euro qualifiers, the team made up of the English players who have excelled against all league competition, should be benefiting from the higher level of play that they see week in and week out in the league, right? I can’t see how taking away the chance to defend Cristiano Ronaldo is going to do anything but make Micah Richards worse.

Thinking this over while I watched Peter Crouch give England the lead against Austria (Peter Crouch, by the way, scores goals), I started to wonder if the problem for England wasn’t actually the reverse of the “too many foreigners” argument. It seemed to me that the largest difference between England and every other major football nation is not how many players are coming in, but how few players are going out—that there are so few English players, in other words, plying their trade abroad. Brazil and Argentina have always sent their best players to Italy and Spain (and increasingly to England); France, Germany, Holland and Spain have built strong national sides from players many of whom have been based in other countries. Even Italy, which has always hoarded its domestic talent, has had Cannavaro at Real Madrid, Toni at Bayern, Zambrotta at Barcelona and Grosso at Lyon in recent years. England has had Hargreaves at Bayern (and now, obviously, not) and David Beckham in an indeterminate reality that seems to take place in a luxury jet floating in perfect silence through a world of pink-tinged cloud formations over the Atlantic. And that’s really about it.

So could it be that England have suffered from having too many players at home? Do complex tax liability and learning how to tip at nightclubs where you don’t speak the language hold the key to the fulfillment of potential? Just to see if I could beguile the stats into looking like some sort of proof, I examined the rosters of the most successful national teams of the last several years: the last three World Cup winners (Italy in 2006, Brazil in 2002, France in 1998) and the last three Euro winners (Greece in 2004, France in 2000, Germany in 1996). And what I found was…no sort of pattern at all.

Interested? Keep reading!

I found squads like France, 68% of whose Euro-winning team in 2000 played outside of France. I also found squads like Italy, 100% of whose World Cup team played at home. And then I found squads like Brazil, which were evenly split down the middle. England are clearly close to the Italy end of the curve, with Beckham being the only recently selected player to play outside the Premier League, but Italy’s having won the World Cup quashes the idea that exporting talent is the key to winning tournaments. A key, perhaps, for nations like France which lack top domestic leagues, but nothing like a necessary condition.

And really, sidling up slowly and peering sideways at the numbers, I couldn’t even say that the key to success was having players in the best domestic leagues: France, certainly, sent most of its stars to Serie A and the Premiership, but Brazil, Greece, and Germany all built championship teams a substantial percentage of whose players had jobs in second-tier leagues. (The Bundesliga, I guess, might be a first-and-a-half-tier league.) Insanely, there was no simple statistical balance that would absolutely guarantee success.

And you know what? I’m almost sure that the same is true of the relationship between foreign players in the home league and the success of the national team. There are just too many other unpredictable factors—chemistry, luck of the draw, mindset, ability to make penalties—that can suddenly surge to the forefront of a team’s ability or inability to win a major tournament for an arbitrary limit on Brazilians to have any definite effect. My personal guess is that England should focus on youth development, changing the media climate, and finding a serious coach, in that order. But limiting the number of good players who can play in the Premier League, since that’s all that a foreign quota could do, would simply lower the standard of the game to no purpose.

Just now, for instance, with a squad forged in the fires of the world’s top domestic competition, England have risen to the challenge of just barely beating Austria. So tell me. Why would you want to change anything?

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Could the Problem for England Be…England?

by Brian Phillips · November 16, 2007

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