Friday, November 16, 2007


Foreign players: whubris's 2 cents

There's a lot of fuss about at the moment over a potential quota for foreign players in the English league. As I understand the argument, foreign players are coming in and taking the places of young English players. As a result the English players aren't getting enough game time, and so there aren't enough decent English players coming through.

If you ask me, that's all rubbish.

John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney, the list goes on. Not enough decent players? What a load of bollocks!

Foreign players often struggle when they come to the English league. People will tell you that it's because the English league is the best in the world. But the opposite is also true - how many England internationals play outside of England? How come successful English players keep going overseas, and failing? Steve McManaman, Michael Owen, Jonathan Woodgate and even David Beckham have all had failed or mediocre careers outside England. Owen Hargreaves is the only player I can think of who's been reasonably successful recently, but he's the exception.

And with so many good English players - who, after all, excel in supposedly the best league in the world - how come the English national team isn't successful?

The real problem - if you'll let me put aside the utter incompetence of Steve McLaren - is that the English league is too insular.

After years of inbreeding, the English football came has become so different to any other in the world that foreigners have trouble playing it, and English players can't play the same way elsewhere because it just doesn't work. The English players only know how to play against English or English-style opponents, and so they just can't play in other leagues and they can't compete in international matches.

Every time an English player faces a foreign opponent, he doesn't know what to do. He's just not used to any other style of play. It's got nothing to do with talent, and more about the way the talent is applied.

And most foreign players who are successful are either geniuses or are brought into the league very young, where they can learn the English game. Older and less talented (but still skilful) players don't succeed because they can't learn too many new tricks, no matter how good they were elsewhere.

As the problem continues, English players get less and less overseas experience, and foreigners are less and less able to influence the English game. And the more insular the English game gets. And the more the problem worsens.

Take Brazil for a prime example of a successful international team. Plenty of Brazilians in their own leagues, no doubt about that. But once talent is spotted, they're immediately whisked away to Europe somewhere, where they get the opportunity to learn foreign (to them) styles of play. The top clubs in most European countries are pretty multinational, so players get to come up against a whole raft of different opponents. Obviously there's more to Brazil's success than that, but there are more examples. Look at Argentina, or Spain, or France, or Germany, or Holland, or (to a lesser extent) Italy. All have great national teams, but their players also ply their trade outside their home country as well as in it. England seems to be the only country that keeps its players within its borders.

Since the English game is possibly the most lucrative in the world, and given its reputation (among the English at least) as being a top league, not to mention the kudos English players get from their own fans for staying in their home country - it's hardly a wonder they don't want to play anywhere else. Foreign players see the English league primarily as a good way to make some money, and by the way it's a decent league too. But they know that it's a tough league for foreigners to succeed in, so they're wary - and ask for higher wages. Then they play like shit and go back home a bit richer. Either that or they're exceptional (Zola, Henry, Cantona...) and succeed, but there's no accounting for genius.

It's not an easy problem to solve. Reducing wages will have the short term effect of a mass exodus of talent, and ironically would probably result in more English players in the English league. Limiting the number of foreign players in the English league of course won't cure the problem. Sure, clubs will invest more in their own academies, and English players will become better in the English game, but the players won't learn anything about foreign styles and the problem will continue or worsen.

Sir Alex Ferguson knows Manchester United have an exceptionally strong youth academy from which he can draw. No wonder he likes the idea of a foreign player limit - most of his players are English anyway and will continue to be for years.

Perhaps the solution is to send youngsters on loan to foreign clubs for a while. They'll get the experience they need and, if they're good enough, return to the English league and have a successful career.

Oh, while I'm on the subject of xenophobia - apply the above to coaches too. And sack Steve McLaren. I know the English hate the Dutch but if Australia can get the likes of Hiddink and (fingers crossed) Advocaat, then so can England. They did the right thing with Sven Goran Eriksson, but it just backfired (but who's to say that Sven just did the best he could with a bad hand? Look at what he's doing with Man City!) - don't put that one-off down to "all foreigners are shit". They shot themselves in the foot with Scolari and Hiddink. There's no reason why someone like Mourinho or Beenhakker couldn't manage England.

Rant over!

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