In 1971, “foreigners” were Scots, Irish or Welsh. In the late 1970s, they became Yugoslav, Argentinian and Dutch. By the 1990s, English football was infiltrated by Danes, Italians, Frenchmen and Germans. And now, English football is truly multi-cultural. Englishmen are in the minority, Scots almost non-existent and as for the Welsh and Irish, where have they all gone?
They used to say that every successful Football League side had a strong Scottish element and looking back over the years, the likes of Billy Bremner and Dave Mackay (to name but two) would bear that out. Today, you’d be hard pressed to name a successful Scot. But then, the same is almost true of English players. Just look at the last nine years’ worth of Premier champions and how many regularly fielded Englishmen (at least 19 games) they had in their line-up: 2003-04: Arsenal – Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell; 2004-05: Chelsea – John Terry, Joe Cole, Frank Lampard; 2005-06: Chelsea – Terry, Cole, Lampard; 2006-07: Manchester United – Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes; 2007-08: Manchester United – Ferdinand, Brown, Rooney, Carrick; 2008-09: Manchester United – Ferdinand, Rooney, Carrick; 2009-10: Chelsea – Ashley Cole, Lampard, Terry; 2010-11: Manchester United – Rooney, Carrick; 2011-12: Manchester City – Joe Hart, Micah Richards, Joleon Lescott, Gareth Barry.
Even the highest ratio – 45% – is a disaster for English football. Nowhere else in the upper echelons of European football – Spain, Italy, Germany – does domestic football get so diluted on such a grand scale. Why is this? All three countries are EU members, so there’s no employment issues. They’re all decent places to live (despite the current economic turmoil in the eurozone), they have great clubs to play for. But one senses there is greater responsibility among their clubs. Domestic football should be the breeding ground for international teams, but in England, we seem to have allowed that sentiment to evaporate.
English clubs have been playing “Fantasy Football” for the past 20 years. They build all-star squads drawn from all over the world. And the sad fact is, the fans want it, expect it, demand it. So what happens to young talent? The clubs pay lip service to the fact they want to breed young players, but for Christ’s sake, their youth teams are full of foreign players too! They drift down the ladder, playing Championship football with the likes of Middlesbrough, Ipswich and Cardiff.
We are all told Globalisation is good – although given some of down-sides we have seen in the developing world suggest it’s not all positive – but by opening all the borders, talent has been dispersed across a broader market. What’s left behind is not always palatable – witness the way domestic leagues in Belgium and Holland have declined in recent years and how the break-up of the Eastern Bloc has diluted the strength of domestic football across Eastern Europe. Nobody worries too much about a trip to Sofia anymore (apart from the relative danger of being a tourist there…), or an away game in Budapest. Despite that, The Champions League is the new World Cup – and it takes place every year.
What globalization has achieved, however, is to make club football at the very highest level – in other words, the marquee clubs – more important than international football. The circulation of hired guns from all over the world means that the big clubs do not have to wait for nascent talent to emerge and, given most football managers don’t hang around for more than two years, they don’t particularly care about the long-term. The clubs inform us that youngsters are not good enough, but in most cases, we shall never know. There is enough money in the English game to realize potential. The effect of neglect on international football teams is devastating – as we are seeing with England.
So here’s a five-point plan to addressing the imbalance: Restrict the number of foreigners in any EU domestic team; Introduce wage caps, thereby discouraging mercenaries from chasing the money; National FAs to police the number of young players being introduced to youth squads; Make players honour their contracts; and Ban agents from player negotiations.
Get some of these right and we may have a chance. Get it wrong and England will soon become Wales, Ireland or Scotland. 1-1 draw with Luxembourg anyone?