Here are some opinions that you might have read in the papers recently. There are too many foreigners playing football in Britain at the moment. There aren’t enough foreigners playing football in Britain at the moment. There are too many of the wrong kind of foreigners playing football in Britain at the moment.
Depending on the transfer news of any particular week, you can usually find versions of all of these arguments in the same publication, often even expressed by the same person.
The complaints about too many foreigners typically assert that they are stifling the development of young homegrown players, which is held to be one reason why the England team is such an embarrassment. “Clubs are too easily being persuaded to try the quick fix by splashing millions on foreigners instead of investing in the future,” writes Tony Cottee in the Guardian.
This may well be true, but Cottee is old enough to remember the days before the great influx of foreigners. He would know that the top English clubs then relied on a steady stream of Scots, Welshmen and Irishmen, none of whom did much for the England team and some of whom (his old pal Frank McAvennie for example) were as “temperamental” as any hot-blooded Latin.
That didn’t stop English clubs regarding them as “homegrowns”, a concept which is now being extended to the point of absurdity. Leeds United’s chairman Peter Ridsdale, commenting on Harry Kewell’s new contract, refers to him as part of “all this homegrown talent we have nurtured”, though Kewell was 17 when he first arrived for a trial at Elland Road from the New South Wales Soccer Academy.
So, homegrowns (however defined) good, imports bad? Well, not in the week when Real Madrid buy Luis Figo from Barcelona, who reinvest their takings in Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit. Then wailing and gnashing of teeth spreads across the nation from Highbury to Old Trafford, bemoaning the fact that our so-called strongest league in the world and our supposedly cashed-up clubs can’t compete with the European elite. “Now, more than ever, the Premiership appears just a new way to dress up leftovers,” wrote Paul Wilson in the Observer.
According to this view, English clubs are prevented by their plc status from securing your Figos and your Batistutas (that’s the same English clubs that are “splashing millions on foreigners” remember), whereas their rivals in Spain and Italy have no such constraints. Martin Edwards has been justifiably criticised for the way he ran Manchester United, but whether electing your board Real Madrid-style on a promise to plunge the club into millions of pounds of debt is a saner way to run a football club is, at least, debateable.
These two opinions can be held simultaneously, of course. We should be encouraging the cream of world football to come here, but keeping out the middle-ranking players who prevent honest English lads from getting a game. This is the line pushed by the PFA, among others, and is usually accompanied by a call for limits on the number of foreign players – the utter futility of attempting to persuade the EU to restrict freedom of movement seems only to increase the number of people demand-ing it.
The main reason why foreigners are often preferred to their English counterparts, of course, is that they are cheaper. As Cottee himself points out, had Chelsea or Arsenal inquired about a British player this summer “say, in the First Division, they may have been quoted an exorbitant figure, say £5 million, for someone who has yet to appear at the highest level”. (Who can he possibly mean?)
British players will be able to compete better in the transfer market when they have received better coaching at a young age and when they do not cost as much. If English and Scottish 18-year-olds were technically as competent as those coming out of countries with coaching schemes as good as those in France, Norway or even Australia, they would stand a better chance.
They might even become attractive to Italian and Spanish clubs. Then, of course, the press will be fulminating about how to stop the “player drain” which is robbing our league of its best players and making it impossible for the England manager to get his team together.
From WSC 163 September 2000. What was happening this month