England’s exit in the Round of 16 in the World Cup has triggered a fresh call to rein in the cosmopolitan roster sheets of the Premier League by placing quotas on the number of foreigners on each team. I have yet to come across a coherent argument as to why such a move will assist the English national team. The Bundesliga, Eredivisie, Serie A, and La Liga have oscillated in their percentages of foreign players and there is no discernable pattern as to whether it has helped or hindered their national teams to have more or less foreigners in their own league.
So, what would happen if England limited the number of foreigners in domestic football? My guess is that it would be uniquely disastrous for England. The Premiership is the most popular league in the world and as such generates huge treasuries for even middling clubs to spend on players, coaches, and infrastructure. Reducing the potential talent pool of players is likely to decrease the quality of play and ultimately push viewers away from the English league which means less to spend on developing domestic clubs. That might be balanced by having more spots for English players to hone their craft if there was sufficient infrastructure for the players to hone their craft but there doesn’t appear to be such an infrastructure in place. Tony Attwood of Untold Arsenal wrote an interesting column exploring why England seems to be comparatively behind other traditional football powers and why Arsene Wenger employs so few Englishmen in his first choice squad. Attwood spotlights a few jarring numbers,
“UEFA says there are only 2,769 English coaches holding the three top coaching qualifications. Spain has produced 23,995, Italy 29,420, Germany 34,970 and France 17,588.”
A report from Leeds Met University earlier this year said that, “There is a great shortage of adult coaches as 1,113,000 adults in the UK wanted but did not receive any professional coaching in 2006.”
So what’s going to happen if you isolate England’s top players from better schooled foreign players… if (as the money and the interest levels dry up) you remove an incentive for foreign managers to coach in the premiership? It would seem that you would have an abundance of English players who have even less instruction than they do now. That hardly seems a blueprint to success.
There is however a reason to believe that if your team is not Italy, then getting some of your players into foreign leagues might help the national team progress farther in the World Cup (and there is no reason to think that Italy wouldn’t benefit from some diversity as well).
Since 1990, there has been one world cup winning country, Italy’s 2006 bid, that has not had significant number and quality of personnel actively playing in foreign leagues when they won. And even a couple of Italy’s 2006 stars’ had some previous experience in foreign leagues (Gattuso – Rangers 1997-98, Materazzi – Everton 1998-99, and the Italian-Argentine Camoranesi – Aldosivi 1995-96, Santos Laguna 1996-97, Banfield 1997-98, Cruz Azul 1998-2000 before Verona and Juventus).
Similarly, of teams finishing runner-up in the world cup, only Italy’s 1994 bid played a squad without significant experience in foreign leagues (Italy had none at the senior level).
Of 3rd & 4th place finishers, Germany 2006, had 4 players with foreign league experience, Korea 2002 had 2 players playing outside of Asia but did have 5 players in the J-League, Italy 1990 had no foreign club experience, England 1990 had Lineker’s 103 Barcelona caps and Waddle’s glittering Marseille experience not to mention that nearly half the side had played in Scotland as well as the domestic Football League. Every other squad to finish in the top four since 1990 has been staffed with a minimum of 5 players with some experience playing for a foreign club and many had double or triple that. Presumably, some of these players are learning to win games in ways not focused upon in their domestic leagues and they are getting altogether different technical and tactical approaches to add to their game. I’m not sure that there is any one reason why Italy seems somewhat immune to the need to place its players in foreign leagues but I’m guessing that the emphasis on tactics implies a greater learn and response to an opponent than other schools emphasize. Indeed, Germany spent an entire generation sending players to Italy in particular. The 1986 and 1988 squads had 2 players apiece playing in Serie A. By 1990, that number had jumped to 5 and every team that Germany presented to the Euros or World Cup in the 1990s had at least 4 players (and sometimes as much as 40% of the squad) who had played in Serie A. This has been coupled by a growing German presence in France and England.
So maybe what’s happening is that the traditional powers are incorporating everybody’s else’s leagues (including the English), but the English are ignoring the opportunity to learn the same of their chief European rivals which would seem to put the English at a huge disadvantage. I suppose one could argue that by limiting the amount of foreigners in England, other national teams would forget how to play against the English, but that seems like it would take a long time and not really solve the systemic problems. Perhaps better to push English players to explore other leagues and bring back that experience to fuse with the benefits that are already inherent in English football while pushing a national directive to domestically increase the coaching corps as well as creating widespread easily available scholarships to encourage players and coaches to study football abroad.