Commentary

England -- belatedly and hesitantly -- begins to accept Latin talent

By Paul Gardner

LONDON -- Change -- important, fundamental change -- seems to be arriving at last in English soccer. Slowly and reluctantly, of course. I'm tempted to say this is going to take time, but that overlooks the fact that the change I'm talking about has already taken up an enormous amount of time. About a hundred years, roughly speaking.

That's how long it has taken for the English to understand -- or to begin to admit - that their way of playing soccer, of talking about soccer, of just thinking about it, is out of whack with what's going on in the rest of the soccer world.

This is something that ought to have been put right decades ago. It has, after all, been nearly 50 years since England won its last major trophy. During that time, England has done what it has always been good at: ignoring the rest of the world, ridiculing what they're up to, retreating into the false safety of arrogant insularity.

So strong has that insularity been that it has managed to resist the foreign invasion, almost the foreign take-over, of the Premier League. The reasoning has evidently been that English soccer must be the best, or why would all those foreign stars want to play in England? That the influx might be related to the enormous salaries on offer never gets serious consideration.

Even when top teams like Arsenal or Chelsea fielded teams that were largely, even totally, made up of foreign players, they were, still are, treated as "English" teams.

Foreign players they might be, but they are playing English soccer. Remarkably, there is much truth in that. Something in the English atmosphere, maybe? Who knows, but the foreign stars, nearly all of them, including the best of them, succumbed to the frenzy of English-style soccer, the speed, the physicality and, yes, without a doubt, the exhilaration of all that macho action.

There was an exception. The scholarly Frenchman, Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal in 1996 and tried to impose the Beautiful Game, or at least an Anglicized version of it. He had Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, wonderfully skillful forwards. But he had Patrick Vieira, who also had above average skills, but was basically a midfield hard-man, an enforcer.

Wenger's compromised Beautiful Game worked for a while. But even Wenger never dared to take the decisive step towards full acceptance of a game based on skill rather than muscle.

That term -- the Beautiful Game -- was used by Pele in the title of his autobiography. It described the game as played in Brazil, and more widely in Latin America. And it was Latin American soccer that the English shunned. Among the foreign hordes playing in the English Premier League, there were pitifully few Latinos, and virtually no Brazilians.

Wenger did experiment with a few -- but they were defenders or rugged defensive midfielders, not players who would bring the artistry that was typical of the Latin game. That word -- artistry -- was a big part of the problem. How could artists be expected to survive in the blood and thunder of the English game?

Ridiculous -- so, best to snub them. On it went, this English aversion to artistry, on into the 21st century, a time when every other country in Europe was signing up Latin Americans, who were increasingly among the continent's top stars. They also seemed to do very well as goalscorers. England was hopelessly out of step.

But sometime round about 2010, the change I'm talking about began to take a tangible form. By then, Cristiano Ronaldo -- not a South American, but a very Latin player -- had come and gone. He had left an unforgettable legacy of skillful soccer. He had also -- this still being the England of anti-Latino bias - been repeatedly accused of diving, and of various other forms of cheating. And of using too much hair gel. But he had opened a lot of eyes. And he had slightly opened the door for Latinos.

Not that there has been a sudden frantic rush to sign Latin players. Obviously, the incomparable -- but worryingly flawed -- Luis Suarez made a huge contribution.

That was the glamorous top end. But the change was happening at a more grass roots level, too. As I write, the three top goalscorers in the EPL are Diego Costa, Leonardo Ulloa, and Sergio Aguero. All Latinos. Costa and Aguero are internationally famous stars ... but who on earth is Ulloa?

Ulloa is a 28-year-old Argentine midfielder of no great fame. He's been around -- four clubs in Argentina, two in Spain, none of them top tier clubs. In 2013 he signed for English second division club Brighton, and today Ulloa is with Leicester City in the EPL. His success in English soccer would have been highly unlikely, maybe as recently as five years ago.

Even now, it is possible to discern a lack of understanding of Ulloa's talents in England. A couple of weeks back, Ulloa scored two goals as Leicester pulled off an unlikely 3-1 win over Manchester United. His first goal was a header of quite astonishing power and accuracy. Yet the TV announcer, rather than marveling at the header, chose to praise the cross from which it was scored -- which really had nothing exceptional about it. It was merely a standard cross, of which there are dozens of examples in every English game.

While Ulloa was proving his worth with the unfashionable Brighton and Leicester, something approaching a revolution was taking place at ultra-fashionable Chelsea, where coach Jose Mourinho now has no fewer than five Brazilians in his first team squad (I'm counting Diego Costa -- just recently naturalized as a Spaniard -- as Brazilian).

Strangely, the unprecedentedly heavy Brazilian presence at Chelsea passes unnoticed. After a recent 3-0 win over Aston Villa, I could not find a single newspaper report that thought it worthwhile recording that all three goals came from Brazilians.

It's almost as though England doesn't want anyone to notice that it has had to swallow its pride and join the rest of the world in acknowledging the merits of Latin American players.

There's another point to be made. Even Arsene Wenger, the arch non-recruiter of South American players, has joined the Latin trend. He now has, for the first time, a genuine South American attacking star in Alexi Sanchez. Then again, maybe I'm speaking too quickly.

Just as Bryan Ruiz, the star of Costa Rica's extraordinary run at this summer's World Cup, could get little playing time at Fulham, and just as Erik Lamela, who played so well in Argentina's recent 4-2 win over Germany, has trouble cementing a first-team place at Tottenham, now it seems that Sanchez may have problems satisfying Wenger. After Sanchez had scored four goals for Arsenal in his first eight games -- including a crucial one against Besiktas, that gained Arsenal entry into the UEFA Champions League -- he was suddenly, and quite inexplicably, relegated to the bench for an important game against Southampton.

No, it still is not plain sailing for Latinos in England. But, it really does look as though, slowly, things are changing for the better.

12 comments about "England -- belatedly and hesitantly -- begins to accept Latin talent ".
  1. Kevin Kelly, October 3, 2014 at 7:10 p.m.

    Paul, are the Spaniah latins? By the way, the list of South Americans in the EPL is long and not new. Do some research. Oh, and there are lots of hard men in Argentina and Brazil. Get a grip.

  2. cisco martinez, October 3, 2014 at 8:20 p.m.

    I think Americans need to read this article and ask why we hire English coaches? If we look at the World Cup winners Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Italy, and France are all Latin based and are more technical and tactical compared to the physicality and speed of English football. Moreover, American coaches still favor speed over technical ability and it's a shame; technical teams such as Barcelona are dominant domestically and in Europe and it is nearly impossible to take the ball away from them.

  3. Brian Something, October 3, 2014 at 9:12 p.m.

    You can blame Wenger for not "going all out" in accepting the Beautiful Game but I don't. And there's one simple reason. The Beautiful Game can only happen if you have referees that actually call fouls. In England, they pretty much only call a foul if there's a broken bone... and even then it's usually with only a yellow card and a bunch of excuses ("he's not that kind of player" bla bla bla).

  4. Brian Something, October 3, 2014 at 9:13 p.m.

    Cisco: AMEN! If someone has an accent from the British Isles, everyone in America is dazzled like schoolboys and assumes they must be a genius. I've had trainers work with my players and say the exact same thing I told them a million times. But because they did it with an accent, the kids thought they were in the presence of genius. Adults are worse.

  5. Gus Keri, October 3, 2014 at 9:43 p.m.

    "he was suddenly, and quite inexplicably, relegated to the bench for an important game against Southampton." First, it was against Tottenham. Second, he was resting him to start in the next game against Galatasaray in the UCL which is very important and "not inexplicable" reason, IMO.

  6. Kent James, October 3, 2014 at 10:26 p.m.

    Paul, while I agree that it is about time English teams used more Latin players, I would not attribute referees calling Ronaldo for diving early in his career to any 'anti-Latin' bias; Ronaldo did dive pretty flagrantly early in his career (he's gotten much better about it). That's not to say there wasn't and anti-Latin bias in the EPL at the time, just that Ronaldo was criticized for other reasons. There is probably an anti-"pretty boy" bias (the hair gel thing...); I also think there is a fine line between being creative and showing off, and I think many English see Ronaldo as too selfish and self-aggrandizing for their tastes (though I do think he's won over many of those same critics over the course of his career as he's demonstrated his work ethic and team play).

  7. Fidel Colman, October 3, 2014 at 11:32 p.m.

    Paul - thanks for the intelligent insight and commentary you always bring to light - haters will be haters but it does not change the truth you point out - keep up the good work

  8. Giuseppe Emma, October 4, 2014 at 3:05 a.m.

    Hi Paul thanks for your article. Basically, I don't get quite whether you accuse England of being too consrvative towards Latin/foreign players. Therefore, enormous talents cannot flourish. Am I all right?

    As I am a soccer coach, who wish to coach pro soccer in UK. Looking at your article, will that mean any possible change we can give to the game will be eliminated by the FA?

    Actually, FA are looking at the Spanish and German game. They have published a new book, known as the future game. Although, this book get summed up in the principles of the English game by taking source from the foreign ones.

    Hope you answer Paul

    Thank you again

  9. Chris Mitchell, October 4, 2014 at 7:28 a.m.

    Paul, again you forget that the UK's visa regulations have a huge part to play in all this. It is very difficult to get a work permit for a non-EU player, unless they are considered an "exceptional talent" - which effectively means they are an established international already. So a striker or midfielder already good enough to represent a top South American team is going to cost a huge amount, meaning that only the wealthiest teams can afford them. Hence Chelsea has lots of Brazilians and Manchester City has some top Argentines. Arsenal has bought their first big Latin American attacking star for around 35 million pounds - which would not have been possible in the last 10 years of the club's financial austerity. Meanwhile, the up-and-coming Latin talent has no problem getting permits to work in Italy, Spain and Portugal.

  10. Mike Jacome, October 6, 2014 at 5:58 p.m.

    I've been telling this consistently. Mexico, Spain,Italy and England all have southamerican coaches (Chilean,, Argentinians and Brazilians) There is no single one in MLS... The only thing close is Colombian coach in Chivas, but that is not exactly the top of the line Southamerican coaches. Give Argentinean coaches a chance. To me they are the best coaches in the world.

  11. Amos Annan, October 7, 2014 at 9:42 a.m.

    Wrong again - EPL is only interested in winning. They don't care if Latin or from Mars.

  12. Footballer Forever, November 8, 2014 at 11:05 a.m.

    Paul Gardner, did a British boy stole your school days girlfriend or did your wife left you for a British guy? You got issues with anything British and Football is just an excuse to spit your venom? You are a pathetic "soocer" writer and predictably boring with your same view. Get a life or simply get a British wife to put you in your place, Snobby American man!

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