By Paul Gardner
Some stats for you. I've been rummaging around in the rosters of the European leagues as published in the November issue of World Soccer, paying particular attention to the foreigners in each league.
I’m happy to report that, as far as I can see, the figures I shall roll out below prove absolutely nothing at all, or possibly they prove anything you want to prove. Whatever, they’re sort of fun.
We’re dealing here with the five top European leagues: England’s Premier League, France’s Ligue 1, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, and Spain’s La Liga.
No prizes for guessing which league has the most foreigners -- the English Premier League (EPL), with 358 (or 62% of the league’s 577 players listed) is way out in front of second place Germany (241, 48%), with Italy (208, 40%), France (190, 35%) and Spain (186, 35%) following.
Now, how about that -- here’s proof that having lots of foreigners really screws up the national team. England with the most foreigners was a joke in South Africa, Spain with the fewest, won the whole thing. Unfortunately for that theory, France had only 34.99% of foreigners -- about the same as Spain’s 34.83%, and France, you will remember, was one of the great flopperoos of the tournament.
Germany did well -- with the Bundesliga having its players just about evenly divided between domestic and foreign -- 52 to 48%. But, in the interests of maintaining the undoubted truth that statistics are not really statistics unless they are thoroughly confusing, I must mention that the German results are suspect anyway, because, where England, France, Italy and Spain run 20-team leagues, the Bundesliga has only 18 teams, which sounds like one those things that stats people call a “confounding variable.”
So there we are, those stats prove nothing. Or maybe they prove that you have to go a lot deeper, and find out how much playing time these guys are getting, whether all the foreigners are starters or not. There might be a prima faciecase for assuming that most of them would be -- foreigners are usually quite expensive and it wouldn’t make too much sense to bring them in to sit on the bench. Reasoning that, incidentally, involves two massively insecure assumptions -- one, that soccer is a logical operation, and two, that the coaches and general managers in charge of buying players know what they’re doing.
I really do find it amazing that there are players from 63 foreign countries playing in the EPL. Amazing -- though it’s not as amazing as it sounds. The English figures are skewed as it happens, because I’m using a soccer definition of foreigner, and therefore including anyone who is not qualified to play for the English national team. That means counting 20 Scots, 17 Welshmen and 5 Northern Irish -- 42 players who are all citizens of the United Kingdom.
Only soccer sees fit to dub them foreigners. Without them, the number of foreign countries represented goes down to 60, and the percentage of foreign interlopers in the EPL drops to 54%, closer to Germany’s 48%. Do you think a difference of 6% in the import total can account for Germany making mincemeat of England in South Africa?
Seems unlikely to me. What I find much more revealing about the inadequacies of English soccer, are the stats that surely show (well, I’ll settle for what they most likely, probably, seem to show) that the English continue their age-long aversion to the Beautiful Game. By which I mean Brazilian soccer.
Just look at these figures for the number of Brazilians in each league: Italy 43; Germany 24; Spain 22; France 21; and bringing up the rear ... England, with 10.
That does it for me, conclusively. This time, I do know something about the background, and it’s a lot worse than it looks. Of those 10 Anglo-Brazilians, only one is a forward and he -- Jo at Manchester City -- at the moment is lucky to get on the field at all. There are three Brazilians at Manchester United -- and two of them are defenders. So, obviously (well, pretty nearly obviously), what these stats prove (or point strongly toward) is that my long-standing theory that the English will never get anywhere until they learn to appreciate the Brazilian game must be 100% correct (or pretty close to that).
Finishing with that deplorable topic, and jumping back to World Cup performance, I just had a thought that it’s not so much letting the dreaded foreigners in, as allowing your own players to go overseas that might cause the damage. Bingo! -- immediate confirmation, because France, who really messed things up in South Africa, are by far the largest exporter of players to the others countries in this group -- they have 73 players playing in Spain, England, Germany and Italy. Italy’s comparable figure is 14, Germany’s is 6 and, wow!, how about this one -- England has no players in any of the other four countries. Not a single one. Which could mean that the English players are so well paid and so happy at home that they see no need to travel, or it might be that the French, Spanish, Germans and Italians simply don’t think English players are worth bothering with. But I just realized that England’s not exporting any players at all fatally trashes my theory that having players overseas is what weakens national teams.
So I shall turn to the trivia. Of all the 78 club rosters, only one team shows no foreign players at all. That is Athletic Bilbao, which has a rule against signing foreigners. Which club has the most foreigners? The prize, if that’s what they should get, goes to Italy’s Internazionale -- 24 of its 30-man roster are stranieri. No, hold on, we have an unlikely competitor, and this one is a tie. Coming in with exactly the same stats as Inter -- i.e. 24 foreigners out of 30 players is the EPL’s Fulham.
Jumping back to the Latin Americans, there are 120 Brazilians and 103 Argentines playing in these five countries. Things are beginning to fall apart, even within that stat. Time was when you only signed the South Americans who were magical ball artists -- Di Stefano, Sivori, Jair, Didi, Zico, Romario, Maradona and so on -- but to my horror I find that 16 of the current crop of Argentines and Brazilians are goalkeepers. Whatever that means, I don’t like it, not one little bit.