Commentary

The EPL begins to embrace Latino talent

By Paul Gardner

All 20 English Premier League teams were in action on Boxing Day (Dec. 27). Between them, they scored 27 goals, meaning 2.7 goals per game, which is about average for the modern game.

But there are a couple of other stats to be found in that goal total that are worth pondering. Only eight of the goals were scored by English players. Perhaps not too surprising in a league where over 50 percent of the players are foreigners. But it is a stat that many English soccer people -- from fans to journalists to national team coach Roy Hodgson -- find decidedly irritating. Worse than that, it seems unfair. I mean, how English is an English league that makes it difficult for English players to find starting slots on its teams? Especially, goalscorers?

And now another threat is emerging to make life even more difficult for English strikers. Of the 27 Boxing Day goals, five were scored by Latin Americans. This is a new development in England, which has been notoriously slow to recruit Latinos, even while these same Latinos -- in particular Brazilians and Argentines -- have been proving their value as goalscorers all over the rest of Europe.

Now, at last, the Latinos are arriving in England. Last year the English fans got a stunning close-up of a genuine Latino striker in Luis Suarez at Liverpool. It looked like a genius at work. This year it is Sergio Aguero (an Argentine) and Diego Costa (a naturalized Spaniard, but a Brazilian player through and through) who are putting on a show. Along with the Chilean Alexis Sanchez, they occupy three of the first four positions on the EPL top scorers chart.

There are now Latinos on 19 of the 20 EPL teams. Only Burnley, promoted to EPL status this season, has none. Of the 51 Latinos now signed with EPL clubs, 23 are Argentines. Next come 13 Brazilians, then Chile, Ecuador and Uruguay with three each, Colombian and Costa Rica with two, and Paraguay and Honduras, each with one player.

The numbers, then, are not overwhelming. The maximum number of Latinos at any one club is six -- at Manchester City. Which also happens to be one of the three EPL clubs with a Latin American coach -- the Chilean Manuel Pellegrini. The others are Mauricio Pochettino (Argentina) at Tottenham, and Gus Poyet (Uruguay) at Sunderland. Nor is it clear that it is always Latin American flair that is being sought. Among the EPL’s Latinos there are four goalkeepers and 12 defenders, while probably half of the 26 midfielders are more defensive than attacking players. There are only nine forwards.

But the slowly growing number of Latino players or coaches does not tell the whole story. It was the arrival of just one player this season -- Alexis Sanchez at Arsenal -- that may well mark the most significant moment in the EPL’s acceptance of Latin players.

For all of his 18-plus years in charge at Arsenal, Coach Arsene Wenger has resolutely resisted signing Latino players. One or two have played with Arsenal, without any great distinction, but they were very rarely the creative midfielders or goal-scoring forwards who display the artistry that is at the heart of the Latin American game.

Wenger, the high priest of the possession game, the greatest devotee of skillful, attacking soccer, evidently did not believe that Latin Americans would add anything to his EPL team. So why would any other EPL coach, all of them less devoted to the beautiful game than Wenger, bother with the Latins?

The usual explanation offered (though not by Wenger -- since he has never admitted avoiding Latino players, what was there to explain?) was that Latinos cannot adapt to English ways. They don’t like the weather or the food, for a start. But the biggest problem was simply that the English held the conviction that the Latinos weren’t tough enough for the vigorous English game.

There was plenty of evidence to deny that idea -- not least the brilliant careers of the 5-foot-7 Ossie Ardiles at Spurs in the 1980s and 5-5 Juninho Paulista at Middlesbrough between 1999 and 2004 -- but it was deeply enough ensconced in the English mind to amount to an obdurate prejudice, and as such not easily breached by contrary evidence.

But now, with Wenger giving his tardy blessing (how many more Latinos will follow Sanchez to the Emirates is anyone’s guess, but there are rumors that Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani is being sought) it appears that England may at last be joining the rest of Europe in welcoming Latino talent. And to anyone familiar with English history, that will not surprise. England has always been suspicious of ideas developed on the continent.

1 comment about "The EPL begins to embrace Latino talent ".
  1. F. Kirk Malloy, December 27, 2014 at 8:30 p.m.

    I agree with the general thrust, but let's give Wenger more credit. Wenger signed the Brazilian-trained Eduardo in 2007. Though he came out of Croatia immediately prior, Eduardo always played with Brazilian flare, and quickly found first team time with Arsenal. If you can play, there's always a spot with the Gunners.

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