By Paul Gardner
I would rate it as one of the major conundrums of world soccer -- but it’s a pretty obvious one, with an even more obvious answer. So ...
Question: Why are there so few British players with foreign clubs?
Answer: Because the Brit players are not good enough.
Quite probably that is the correct answer, though it would be difficult to prove it. The money motive cuts across any attempt to explain matters: If English players can haul in excellent salaries by staying home and playing in the EPL why should they even think of going overseas?
So maybe it has nothing to do with the caliber of the players. But one wonders. As it happens, British players have never been in demand. Back in the early 1960s, when English salaries were pathetically low compared to those in Italy or Spain, there was no mass immigration of players to those countries. The Italians did come calling, and walked away with some top stars, notably Denis Law and Jimmy Greaves. Both were back in Britain after just one season. Only one player reached unquestioned stardom in Italy, the Welshman John Charles, who scored 93 goals during five seasons with Juventus.
Englishman Gerry Hitchens stayed the longest, playing with four different clubs over nine years.
Otherwise the record of British players in foreign climes is one of brevity and mediocrity. It is said, without explanation, that British players do not adapt well. And left at that.
Which raises another question: Is British soccer somehow different, then, from that played everywhere else? After all, there are oodles of Brazilians and Argentines playing in foreign countries, plus plenty of French, Germans, Africans, Dutch, Italians and Spanish. But virtually no Brits. What is the problem here?
The question was buzzing around in my head this past weekend as the menu of weekend games served up side-by-side games from England and Spain.
I found the Spanish games -- Racing Santander 0 Barcelona 3, and Real Mallorca 0 Real Madrid 0 -- the pick of the crop, their soccer more skillful, more intelligent, easier on the eye. The Real Madrid game even managed to be one of those rare 0-0 ties that presented plenty of goalmouth action at both ends of the field.
The EPL games -- Blackburn 1 Arsenal 2, and Aston Villa 1 Everton 0 were, definitely, different. Defining that difference is not so easy. Evidently, it is not a matter of excitement -- the Arsenal game had plenty of that. I’d venture that the EPL games featured more overtly physical play. I don’t mean dirty play or fouling, I mean merely that the impression is of players constantly performing at or near the limits of their physical powers, whether that means running or jumping or kicking or heading or tackling. If that impression is correct, then it seems likely that I found more subtlety in the Spanish game.
I think that was so, especially from Barcelona, which won 3-0, comfortably enough. But while watching that game, I couldn’t help thinking -- still in the context of the peculiarities of the British game -- of Javier Mascherano.
An Argentine midfielder who has been playing for Liverpool for three seasons. And now Barcelona wants him. Why? He does not strike me as a Barcelona-type player. When have they ever needed a midfield pit bull? As it happens, I see Mascherano much more suited to the British game. So it will be revealing to see if he undergoes a transformation in the Barcelona shirt.
Were Mascherano a British born-and-bred player, I feel sure he would not be able to adapt. But he is a player with an Argentine pedigree and I think that will make a difference.
Indeed, that may be the answer the question posed above -- Is British soccer different?
An Argentine pedigree means a solid, unshakeable grounding in the fundamentals of ball control and technical skills. Whereas my observations over many decades have convinced me that the English pedigree is something very different. My feeling is that the fundamentals of the British soccer player are not skill-based at all. They are, rather, a collection of attitudes, which can be summed up in the phrase “getting stuck in.” A rather crude-sounding phrase that I’ll define with an emphasis on its more positive qualities -- namely, commitment and a devotion to a hard running, hard tackling, no-nonsense game.
No, there is not much room within those boundaries for artistry and subtlety. And it is the lack of those qualities -- those soccer qualities -- that makes the British game different ... and, I think, inflexible. British players do not adapt well to playing in foreign leagues because their fundamentals do not allow them to. Their gung-ho attitude may have to be tempered, but that can probably be achieved. But the sudden need to upgrade their skills, to find a more sophisticated, more skillful way of playing the game, that is not so easy, probably not possible, beyond the formative early teen years, or even earlier.
While English players do not adapt to foreign leagues, it is also true that some foreigners have trouble adapting to the English game. The chief culprits, it seems, are Brazilians who -- or so we are told -- find the English game too rough, or too fast, or don’t like the English winter. Or maybe it’s the cooking.
Odd that Brazilians have flourished in Germany so well, isn’t it? Or almost every other country you can think of. Again, the British game proves to be the odd man out.
Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of this Brit difference is that it ought not to exist at all anymore, certainly not in the EPL where over 50 percent of the players and a quarter of the coaches are foreigners. But the EPL is different. Something in the British soccer atmosphere makes it fundamentally different.