A foreign concept

December 2007 ~ England’s failings and Sepp Blatter’s plans could combine to produce a lengthy wailing about how it’s all the fault of foreign players. But before the inquest begins, Barney Ronay points out the flaws in this view

Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly who you are supposed to blame. With England’s hopes of qualifying for Euro 2008 all but extinguished by the complex series of injustices and frustrations visited by the defeat to Russia in Moscow, the building blocks are already being shouldered into place for a major inquest. And what an inquest it looks like being. Should the final cut be administered this month, English football is already geared up for a masterpiece of introspection, an epic of self-reproach born aloft on the twin pillars of the too-many-foreign-players and let’s-revamp-the-under-sevens lobbies.

Chief among these concerns is the number of foreign players in the English leagues, a subject that, conveniently enough, was also taken up last month by Sepp Blatter. The FIFA president has launched a campaign to introduce quotas restricting to five the number of foreign players in club teams. This would represent a major shift in the way that not just English players, but players from across the world, seek employment. In one recent round of Champions League games the four English clubs fielded 11 English players between them, fewer than half the number Blatter proposes (Celtic’s Lee Naylor was the only Englishman to represent a team outside his homeland). At present England would be affected by the rule more than any other European nation: the same round of games saw 34 French players used, 30 Italians, 16 Romanians, 15 Turks and 13 Scots.

Blatter’s campaign led to him seeking dispensation from the European Union at their Lisbon summit in September to circumvent laws on the free movement of labour between member states. “We need to protect the national identity of the football clubs,” he announced, interestingly centring his argument on preserving national identity in club football, as opposed to ­fostering the development of international football, still a more emotive argument in this country. In the press, at least, Blatter’s crusade has already attracted support, largely as part of the general hand-wringing over England’s apparently moribund Euro campaign. Suddenly this all looks fair game.

Quotas are a simple, if very blunt, solution. But would they make any difference? It seems very English to remedy a problem by turning back the clock and doing things the way we used to, rather than simply adapting. “When you have 11 foreigners in a team, this is not good for the development of football,” Blatter has declared, catching a familiar theme. There are two answers to this. The first is to do with that unhelpful word “foreigner”. Foreigners, as we know, come from many different places. So a team of 11 foreigners, three of them from Denmark, may actually be no bad thing for the development of Danish football. Someone, somewhere has to produce these foreigners.

The problem for England is the refusal of young English players to seek employment as a footballer in another country. This is all their French and Spanish counterparts are doing: taking advantage of the market. There’s no reason why decent English ­second-stringers – say, Justin Hoyte or Steve Sidwell – couldn’t play top-flight, or even Champions League, football in Holland or Germany. They just won’t, however. The money’s too good here. They speak the language. And young English footballers have no history of seeking opportunities abroad. So the pool of available players shrinks, not because of some terrible mistake relating to immigration policy, but because of insularity and an entrenched short-termism.

The second problem is that Blatter’s proposal goes against pretty much every aspect of the modern world. Globalism has so far proven irresistible, at least in the kind of international industry top-level football has become. Blatter has positioned himself in the way of a rising tide. Much better to find a way round the new reality. Arsène Wenger is a vocal opponent of Blatter’s plans and not just out of self-interest. Wenger’s internationalist Arsenal team functions as a physical expression of his economist’s belief in unfettered international competition. “Sport is competitive and competition is based on merit. It does not matter where you are born. It matters who you are,” Wenger has said, sounding a bit like he’s reading from a textbook on how the perfect international global future is going to work.

Catching the same wave of discontent as Blatter’s quota notions are the complaints about the standard of youth coaching periodically put forward by Trevor Brooking. There seems to be a feeling that coaching and development can be improved from the top down; that a quota of English players in every club side would offer an incentive to coaches across the country to chuck out the big goals and get their kids doing Ajax-style golf-ball five-a-sides instead.

But there is a problem at the heart of Brooking’s argument that deserves to be mentioned in passing. Brooking has often compared the current scarcity of English players with their near-monopoly in the top division when he was playing. This is fine, but it fails to address the fact that in the 1970s England failed to qualify for the World Cup twice in a row.

Possibly objections about standards of coaching would be best off steering clear of the quota talk. It’s not weight of numbers that matters, but quality; the kind of things you are supposed to learn years before you get anywhere near the first team.

Blatter’s quota, in all likelihood, won’t happen. Even if it did, its effects are open to question. For a start, most English teams would be instantly much worse than they were before. And who’s going to put up with that in the Premier League? More likely, things will just carry on the way they are. Other tournaments will come. Other disasters will occur. More complaints will be raised. So it goes on. 

From WSC 250 December 2007