Ronald Reng explains why he's still waiting for English attitudes to foreign players change
In the crowded toilet of a Barnsley nightspot called The Theatre I learned what it means to be a foreign football hero in England. As I walked in with Lars Leese, Barnsley’s giant German goalkeeper, one of the men relieving themselves turned around and welcomed Lars with a hint of poetry: “Oh, Lars Leese/Tall as trees.” Then the man gently stepped back to offer Lars his place at the urinal. During all this he kept on pissing, now on the floor.
Lars had offered to show me around Barnsley to prove that his accounts of life as a footballer in an English town were not exaggerated. They definitely were not. We were stopped in the street by two 14-year-old girls who desperately wanted to discuss the latest run of Barnsley reserves, we were press-ganged into becoming guests of honour at a birthday party, and offered approximately 233 drinks by total strangers.
“When you lose a game in Germany,” he said, “you lock yourself in, afraid of fans who would beat you up. In Barnsley, you face a different problem. You are drunk after 30 minutes because everybody wants to buy you a beer to console you.”
By his own admission, Leese did not do much to earn such adoration. He made 24 appearances for Barnsley in two years, a few outstanding, but hardly the stuff to make you the small-town cult-figure he seems to be. Leese knows better: “The fact that I am 6ft 5in tall and from Germany, home of the European champions, seems enough to assure them that I am a sensational keeper.”
He comes from far away, we paid a lot of money for him, so he must be great: this romantic perspective still exists in the English game and makes it the best place to be for a foreign journeyman footballer – if only such worship did not so easily turn into contempt at the slightest hint of disappointment.
After four years when foreigners were “seven-language-speaking, cappuccino-drinking, much-more-intelligent-than-our-lads” professionals one week and “big-mouthed, big-headed poofs” the next, I thought the 1998-99 season might be the first in English football when it was normal to be foreign. But then came the Van Hooijdonk saga, the Di Canio incident, Leboeuf’s moaning. We also had, for example, the Robbie Fowler affair, but whereas Fowler’s wrong-doings were simply explained by his personal character (or lack of it), the misbehaviour of Van Hooijdonk, Di Canio and Leboeuf were immediately generalised: Oh, these foreigners again.
Ruud Gullit keeps telling us that “a Frenchman is not a foreigner any more”. But Gullit knows he still has to convince us of it, as in English football foreigners are still seen – and still see themselves – as a different species. Interestingly, the English game may be the first to amalgamate common national prejudices: It’s not “the Italians who are cheating” any more, not “the Croatians who are arrogant”, not “the Brazilians who are dancing Samba with the ball”. They are all “the foreigners”, and we are still debating how we can learn from “them” or whether “they” are ruining our game.
No other major European league has had to cope with such a large influx in such a short time. In Spain, Italy and Germany they have employed players and managers from abroad for decades, getting used to different tactics, football cultures and each other in a steady evolution. It was like a permanent drip from a tap. In England, the foreigners came in one big waterfall. Suddenly there were people in the dressing room asking questions like: Where can we get a massage? Why do you drink so much beer? And, do you call it a tactics session when the gaffer shouts: “Move your arse, you fucking dickhead”? Any country would have problems coming to terms with it.
At the Rams Arena, training ground of Derby County, Jim Smith is in a good mood when we come to talk to him about the foreign invasion. “Hello, what are all these women doing here?” he shouts, entering the players’ canteen. In fact, there is one woman, a translator for Francesco Baiano. “I’ll see you in a minute,” Smith tells the woman, then he goes into his office and forgets about her for the next hour.
“I am quite modern, although I am getting old,” he says. “I am prepared to look seriously at anything which will enhance our performance and, yes, a lot of new things came from the foreign players. For example we are now providing the food for the squad at lunchtime, Italian style. They are getting pasta, rice, salad. We’ve taken the chocolate away.” He beams. “Now I get all the Kit-Kats, Snickers and Mars.”
The phone rings. It’s Jan, a Danish agent, who watches the Scandinavian market for Smith. “Yes, Jan, say again, what’s his name? Fuel? Ah, Flo, right.” [Norwegian striker Håvard Flo, then at Werder Bremen.] “See, that’s another thing with all the foreigners,” Smith says. “You get millions of faxes from agents from all over the world saying ‘I’ve got a player for you’. Then they send a video with his ten latest goals – or at least that’s what they tell you. Later you find out he’s only scored nine in his whole career.”
It was inevitable that with so many foreign players arriving, they could not all be super-heroes and bargains, but also failures and braggarts. Though naturally that discovery has not helped ease the pain of integration. At Barnsley, for example, a lot of the local players, who signed their contracts two or three years ago, still earn three or four time less than the imports. “That was the biggest problem when the influx started three or four years ago,” Smith claims. “Our own players were cross. But now it’s just normal.”
On the surface, perhaps. But below it you can hear both foreigners and locals expressing their discontent. “There is no question that the media critics do not apply the same standards in judging me as they do Alex Ferguson,” Gianluca Vialli said at the beginning of the season, when Chelsea’s multinational team suddenly went from one praised for enriching English football to being “the team of mercenary multi-millionaires”.
Of course, he was speaking to an Italian, not an English paper. It’s a situation that replays itself endlessly. Someone complains back home about the English training sessions, the English weather or, in the case of Barnsley’s Macedonian striker Georgi Hristov, about the ugliness of English woman. Irritated English players counter-attack, like Paul Gascoigne telling Emmanuel Petit in January: “I don’t like the foreign lads coming in, moaning and saying the league is too long.” And in the heat of the battle some critics fall into the trap of generalising, as the Daily Telegraph did when writing of “foreign parasites”.
Nowhere is the difference in attitude between English players and foreigners so obvious as in their public demeanour off the pitch. English players are brought up to shun the media (in no small part thanks to a uniquely venomous tabloid press) and not to say anything controversial. Foreign players – and here I think it is fair to generalise – are taught the value of speaking out. Someone like Newcastle’s Didi Hamann learned at Bayern Munich that, “You have to raise your voice from time to time, strongly and publicly, otherwise you do not survive.” Guess who created a storm when he commented on Newcastle’s turmoil in late December.
Hamann’s compatriot Uwe Rösler, now back with Kaiserslautern, says most foreigners realise the kind of things they are expected to say at home are not welcomed in England. “But if you are frustrated by your own or the club’s situation, you just fall into your old habit,” Rösler says. In 1997 nothing was going right at Manchester City. Relegated to the First Division, they saw off four managers in five months and Rösler suddenly found himself chatting away to a German journalist. “I knew the rules, I knew the story would come back to haunt me, but still I could not stop myself complaining,” he says.
The headlines of either the “whinging” or “much-more-intelligent-than-our-lads” foreigners will presumably go on as long as English clubs continue to advise their players not to speak their minds. In comparison to such professionals the foreign view will always sound articulate and often controversial. Steve Heighway, director of Liverpool’s Youth Academy, said at the opening of his institution: “The definition of players is changing. We have to bring through boys who can communicate, represent our industry better.”
But communicating is also about saying what you really think sometimes. Even if English players are brought up with the slick PR-speak of “representing the industry”, the differences between them and “the foreigners” will still seem huge. And it is the foreigners who will continue to be unreasonably praised and blamed in equal measure.
From WSC 149 July 1999. What was happening this month