By Paul Gardner
The lament of Bobby Charlton -- Sir Bobby Charlton if you prefer that sort of thing -- is one that has been heard before. Charlton has assessed England’s chances of winning the World Cup any time soon, and has decided -- correctly, it seems to me -- that those chances are pretty slim.
“People wonder whether we will ever win it again. I worry about that as well. When I am asked to give my opinion, I always say yes -- but it is a fool’s errand.”
It is his reasons for this gloomy verdict that interest. Too many foreigners. Too many non-English players in the Premier League occupying places that should belong to English players.
“You need good players. But if all the spaces at English clubs are taken by foreign players, you have no chance.”
Yes, we have heard this argument before. Foreign players -- you can read that as foreign workers -- always present a problem. They are always likely to be seen as interlopers who are stealing jobs from the native-born locals, and that is never going to be widely accepted without plenty of grumbling.
Except that in soccer, probably more than in any other endeavor, it is pretty widely accepted. Because soccer has impeccable credentials as an international activity that knows no borders ... and because soccer, as a sport, lives and dies by results. The millions of fans throughout the world know those results, they see the way things are going, they know that the richest clubs are in Europe, and they know that the most successful of those teams thrive on foreign players.
Club teams, that is. But that is not where the dissatisfaction arises. Because the story is different for the national teams, which cannot -- well, only occasionally -- use foreign-born players. The old ideal of domestic league clubs with rosters full of native players no longer applies at the top level.
Charlton complains that England’s youngsters are denied slots on top teams. How can you build a strong national team from players who are not getting regular competitive games at the top level?
Maybe we should blame the Italians -- they started this business of importing foreigners, back in the 1930s. They brought in, from South America, top stars who could claim Italian origins, the oriundi, which meant they were the offspring of Italian immigrants. By the 1980s there were Czechs, Danes, Swedes, Germans, Spaniards and Yugoslavs, too. As the number and the variety of foreigners grew, the objections began. Italy had once been the top dog, the world’s leading soccer power, winner of consecutive World Cups in 1934 and 1938. Since then, some 40 years without the title. Something was wrong, and much criticism was directed at all the foreigners playing in Serie A. It was, precisely, Charlton’s complaint.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the Italian Federation tinkered with a variety of measures to limit foreigners -- only two per team, or two plus one oriundo, or three, then only two foreigners on the field at any time. In 1964 came a complete ban on imported players. Which was followed, two years later, by Italy’s most embarrassing World Cup disaster, the first-round elimination after a 1-0 loss to North Korea.
One foreigner per club was permitted in 1980 -- and two years after that Italy did, at last, win its third World Cup. But there was no easily discernible cause-and-effect relationship between the presence of foreign players in Italy, and the strength of the azzurri.
Nowadays, all the top soccer clubs of Europe are awash with foreign players -- so many, in fact, in so many nations, that it is well nigh impossible to measure any possible negative impact on national teams.
A solid reminder of the extent to which the employment of foreign players has become the norm in Europe is provided by some recent statistics from the International Center for Sports Studies (CIES) -- and if that elaborate title isn’t enough to impress you, let me add that CIES also carries the accolade of being “FIFA-backed.”
The CIES stats deal with 31 countries and the overall finding is that over a third of the players with top clubs (36.1%) are foreigners. Looking only at the “big five” European countries, these are the figures for foreigners: England 55.1%, Italy 52.2%, Germany 46%, Spain 35.3%, and France 27.4%.
England and Italy then, with over half of the top players not eligible for their national teams. But the percentage is not much higher than Germany’s 46%, and the German national team has been doing pretty well lately. Come to that, Italy were the reigning world champions as recently as 2009.
It just is not possible to single out an excess of foreigners as a reason for poor national team play. Spain’s total of 35.3% is sizable, but has not prevented the country from currently dominating the international scene.
Another view of the same conundrum is given by the CIES figures for the percentage of homegrown players with each top club -- homegrown being defined as players who spent at least three seasons with the club between the ages of 15 and 21. But even by that liberal definition, the overall level of club-trained players for all 31 countries has now touched a record low of 21%.
If you’re thinking, or hoping, that the big five countries will come in well above that average, you’re way off. Spain does, with 25.6%. Then it’s France 21.1%, England 17.5%, Germany 15.4% and Italy, dead last in the whole of Europe, at 7.8%.
The surprise there, for me, is the low placing of Germany, which is often cited as the model for developing young players, and for sane spending on foreigners. England actually does slightly better in the stats -- but nowhere near as well on the field -- as Germany.
Contradictions abound. Charlton’s pessimism can be seen as one -- for while he bemoans the lack of opportunities for young English players, his club, Manchester United, has the best record in England for fielding club-trained players -- as high as 40%.
The trouble with these stats (there’s always a problem with stats, no?) is that they measure quantity, not quality. Charlton is probably correct in belittling England’s chance of World Cup success, just as he is correct in criticizing the lack of young English players in the Premier League.
But there’s little evidence to support his view that it’s the foreigners who are the problem. More likely, much more likely, it is the quality of the English players, these young products of the Premier League’s expensive academies, that is at fault. By that reckoning the problem is not foreign players. It is English coaching.