In a global game, it shouldn’t be a surprise that clubs such as Arsenal have so many foreign youngsters. But, wonders Barney Ronay, where are the youthful English expat stars?
Alan Pardew’s complaint was that not one of the Arsenal side that eliminated Real Madrid from the Champions League was born in this country. Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the PFA, was similarly exercised: “It’s not an English success. It’s tinged with disappointment. It would be more enjoyable if we saw Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell as part of it.”Alan Pardew’s complaint was that not one of the Arsenal side that eliminated Real Madrid from the Champions League was born in this country. Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the PFA, was similarly exercised: “It’s not an English success. It’s tinged with disappointment. It would be more enjoyable if we saw Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell as part of it.”
Leaving aside the issue of whether Arsenal would have kept a clean sheet over two legs against Madrid with the current-model Campbell windmilling around at the centre of their defence – and also whether the Arsenal fans celebrating their team’s victory were “tinged” with anything other than pride in their team’s performance – this is an increasingly complicated issue. Arsène Wenger’s understandably spiky response didn’t really help clarify things, including as it did some slightly disingenuous remarks about kicking racism out of the game. Neither did Trevor Brooking’s contribution, the FA’s resident all-round good fellow opining that the problem was that English teenagers were simply inferior to their foreign counterparts.
This is a commonly held view among those who make the mistake of dividing the world up into two parts: England and “abroad”. Given that Arsenal devote a great deal of energy to recruiting young players from across the world, it seems quite logical that only one or two of their teenage first-teamers are going to be English. The anomaly would be if they were all Spanish or all South African. The presence of just Theo Walcott among Arsenal’s young reserves is in fact a wholly proportionate representation, given the club’s global reach.
The idea that young British talent will inevitably be squeezed out of the game is a fallacy based on a particularly insular perspective. The world will always need footballers. The point of a common market, or even a global one, is that there is more opportunity rather than less. Like it or not, we’re all a part of it. So why should we still be so far away from a world where young footballers from north London are getting their big break at Valencia or AZ Alkmaar or Kaiser Chiefs?
Part of the problem is that English teenagers just don’t want to go abroad. To a degree the cause of this is financial. The English game is unusually wealthy. The European Union’s free labour laws arrived in football under the Bosman ruling at pretty much exactly the same time as the salary-inflating Premiership and as a consequence young English footballers have had no cause to join the recent European trend for footballing migration. Why would you head the other way to all these economically migrant Czechs and Dutch?
It’s also a cultural thing. Cesc Fabregas arrived at Arsenal from Barcelona already speaking English to a fair standard. Others are prepared to learn. Somehow European teenagers just seem more European, whereas an Englishman abroad tends to remain just that. On top of this, there is the fear that a couple of years away from the youth- and reserve-team conveyor belt of English club football could see you disappear off the radar for good.
There may be something in this, although those who have bucked the trend include Jay Bothroyd, who returned to the Premiership with Charlton from Perugia, and David Connolly, currently at Wigan but previously with Feyenoord and Excelsior in Holland.
More likely everybody, including Brooking, Pardew and a generation of our footballing teenagers, is just going to have to get used to the idea that we’re all one big labour market now.
In any case, often our worst fears are grounded in misunderstanding. Does Thierry Henry lack soul or passion? Is Kolo Touré not determined? Has Dennis Bergkamp not come to represent something important about Arsenal Football Club? Let us hope that one day an Englishman will achieve something similar outside his own borders.
From WSC 231 May 2006. What was happening this month