Michel Platini has had a vision that he finds unacceptable. He sees an English soccer club -- Liverpool -- with "an Arab sheikh as president, a Brazilian coach and nine or 11 African players." He asks: "Where is Liverpool in that?" English clubs, he says, risk "losing their identity. We have to make some rules."
I propose to ignore the lurking xenophobia in Platini's remarks, and concentrate on the idea that Liverpool should be ... well what should it be, according to Platini?
There is only one logical conclusion to draw from Platini's comment. Liverpool's owners and coaches and players must be from Liverpool. Platini should change his name to Platitudini if that's as far as his thinking goes. Because that notion, that "identity" he's talking about, went out of soccer decades ago. In fact it disappeared the moment that professionals first appeared on the scene in England. We're talking here about events of nearly 150 years ago. A high proportion of the early pros in England were Scotsmen. They played for clubs in England. I've no doubt there were voices raised in England at the time asking Platini's very question, deploring the introduction of outsiders into the local teams.
The feeling that a town's club should be made up of local players was still alive, but dying fast in the 1940s in England. An uncle of mine, born near Newcastle, was a tremendous Newcastle fan ... until he told me one day in the 1950s that he didn't care any more, he didn't know any of the players on the team. And he meant "know" in the sense of "know personally." He had grown up with a lot of the earlier players, they were part of the community. Not so any more.
Such an idea now seems not only antiquated, but quite clearly unworkable. A top pro team nowadays need top players. If such players are not available locally -- and Platini must know that they rarely are in England -- then the club must look elsewhere. So English clubs -- very much including Liverpool -- always had Scottish and Welsh and Irish players, and as the sport acquired its global dimension it was inevitable that players from outside Britain would be imported.
That's where we are today. Arsenal, under its French coach Arsene Wenger, has repeatedly fielded a team without a single English -- never mind north London! -- player on it. This worries FIFA (for World Cup reasons), we are told it worries the English Football Association (because it seems to imply a weakening of the national team), and it now worries Platini for reasons that remain unclear. But it does not seem to worry the Arsenal fans. What they want is a winning team, and they have one. So they will buy shirts bearing such splendidly un-English names as Adebayor and Fabregas and Van Persie.
The idea that Italian soccer just be Italian, that German must be German, that English must be English presents problems right from the start. Not least because this is 2008, not 1908. Internationalism is widespread in everything. Borders are more porous than ever. FIFA's chief, Sepp Blatter, trying to convince the European Union that soccer is not a business -- well, not a business like other businesses! -- says it should have special laws applied to it. In this way he wants legislate that every pro team must field at least six home nationals. This is his famous 6 + 5 formula, which the EU has consistently told him will not fly. Because it contravenes the EU's laws on free movement (i.e. across EU borders) of labor -- meaning people seeking jobs.
The Italians have the most experience in this area, for they were the first, back in the 1930s, to import foreign stars, from South America. Their World Cup record -- they have won the trophy four times -- suggests strongly that having foreign imports playing in its league has not damaged its national team. Indeed, the imports may well have strengthened Italian players by raising the standards of the Italian Serie A.
But the problem today, we're told, is that things have got out of hand. It's not foreign players as such that are a problem, simply that there are too many of them. Hence the search for a workable quota system.
It sounds reasonable, but it is not. It is, for a start, obviously discriminatory. But it has a fatal flaw built into it: quotas guarantee places on a soccer team on the basis of something other than soccer merit. That, far from being a recipe for strengthening any team, be it club or national, is more than likely to reduce playing standards.
The English argument is particularly flimsy. It rests on the notion that there is a sizeable pool of young English talent that is being ignored, or is squeezed out of English clubs' youth academies because those clubs prefer to admit foreign youngsters.
What is not being faced up to is that English boys are simply not as good as foreigners -- even before they enter academies. If the academies improve them, they are still behind the foreigners, so the first-team places are going to go to those foreigners. The answer seems clear enough: not an artificial quota system, but coaching programs that produce better players. If that cannot be done, then English soccer has two choices -- go with the foreigners, or sink to the status of a second-class soccer nation.
Trevor Brooking, the ex-West Ham player in charge of player development at the FA, sees the problem with total clarity. He told me recently, "Technically, we're not as good as we should be."
I would only argue with the "should be," as it seems to imply that England has a right to belong among the top soccer nations. There is no divine right ruling that any nation "should" be good. They have to work at it. At the moment the English are not doing too good a job. But lowering the standards -- the inevitable consequence of adopting a Platini-style protective quota system -- is not the answer.