Commentary

Why are England's clubs so barely English?

By Paul Gardner

With the inglorious exit of Everton -- bounced out of the Europa League by a 5-2 mauling from Dynamo Kiev -- the participation of English clubs in this season’s European competition has come to an abrupt and really rather shocking halt.

The UEFA Champions League (UCL) and the Europa League are both at the quarterfinal stage, meaning that 16 clubs are still involved -- but not one of them is from England. Everton and Tottenham have failed in the Europa, ditto for Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool in the UCL.

A disastrous performance by the English clubs. Or is it? After all, in what sense can these six clubs be defined as specifically English clubs? Four of them are owned and operated by foreign, i.e. non-English, companies (the two Europa League entries, Tottenham and Everton, are the exceptions). Not one of the six coaches is English. Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers, from Northern Ireland, comes closest. Otherwise, we have a Frenchman, a Spaniard, a Portuguese, a Chilean and an Argentine.

But it is on the field, among the players, that the absence of an English presence is most remarkable. Taking the lineups for the six teams in their final games -- all the teams were still alive, so these were do-or-die games -- gives a total of 66 players. Of these, only 14 were English -- just 21%. If the substitutes are included (all three subs were used in each game), the figure goes up slightly to 24%.

In three essential areas, these six clubs are very far from being English -- only two English owners, no English coaches, and less than a quarter of the players English. Had anyone suggested to me 20 years ago that such a situation would be acceptable in any country -- particularly in England -- I’m sure I would have scoffed at the mere idea.

The European debacle is not a failure of English clubs so much as a failure of English Premier League clubs, and that is not the same thing at all.

Nonetheless, the foreign domination of the EPL team lineups must surely tell us something about the state of English soccer -- but what? It could be nothing more complicated than that foreign coaches prefer foreign players. Or that foreign players are less expensive. But of course the big fear -- among the English -- is that the shortage of English players means that they aren’t good enough.

Whatever, we have been this route before, repeatedly. It has been 49 years since the English national team last won anything, and the English soccer bosses have yet to work out what needs to be done. Maybe nothing. Maybe the necessary changes in attitude are already at work, and time will take care of everything. There is some evidence that the older English players -- nearing retirement now -- are being replaced with more skillful and dynamic youngsters. After all, England’s so-called “golden generation,” now fading rapidly away, never won anything.

While we await those developments there is another aspect to be considered when contemplating these barely-English clubs. That is, how readily such an unthinkable state of affairs has been accepted. It appears that, to the fans involved, the Englishness or otherwise of their club is not that important. Merely having an English name, having an English history, or simply being located in England, is enough.

As long as those stable basics remain -- and the history cannot be altered, the name and the location are unlikely to be changed -- the fiction of Englishness can be maintained, even though the club is meaningfully English in name only, and all is well.

This is a phenomenon -- certainly one that I never anticipated -- that is open to more than one interpretation. It could mean that the English soccer public is finally welcoming the world game, that it is no longer convinced that only the English know how to play the sport. Which would be a revolutionary and massively positive development, one that should open the way to a much broader view of the game, which in turn should ensure the development of better players.

Then again, it could mean something rather different, something decidedly more parochial. The Italians have a nice word for this -- campanilismo, which comes from campanile, meaning a church’s bell tower. Campanilismo describes a village attitude, one that is interested only in things that happen within sound or sight of the local church tower. For bell tower, read local soccer club. All that matters is that this club, this one dot on the global soccer map, does well, and wins. It doesn’t matter any more (where it used to be of considerable importance) that the players are no longer locals, or English, or at any rate British. Now the players can come from anywhere. Ethnic diversity is welcomed -- not as such, but simply as a means of strengthening our club.

The attitude is insular. It will do little to help the development of the game in England. Unfortunately, it is also an attitude that greatly appeals to the marketing fraternity whose voice is so relentlessly and irritatingly heard these days. The more feverish the fans’ devotion to their local club -- that is, the more intense their campanilismo -- the more the marketeers like it. It enables them to indulge in promiscuous use of one of their favorite words, passion. You’re not supposed to question the validity of an attitude that’s described as passionate.

It almost looks as though ethnic diversity, instead of bringing broad-mindedness, is getting swallowed up by the narrow-mindedness of campanilismo. That’s soccer for you, perverse as ever.

13 comments about "Why are England's clubs so barely English?".
  1. Peter Orona, March 21, 2015 at 3:22 a.m.

    Is England trying to detach itself from of the lack of success of English teams? Any of those teams with more English presence would not qualify for the CL or EL. The English Premiere League is not the top league as such should lose one of its positions in sending teams that qualify in NOT the top 4, but only top 3 positions in the EPL. The open position should go to Spain for qualifying three teams into the quarter finals.

  2. Kent James, March 21, 2015 at 10:12 a.m.

    Paul, I must hand it to you on this one; only you could see the English embracing foreign players, coaches, owners of any ethnicity as a sign of growing provincialism! I'm not sure I can even follow the logic on this one; fans like to win, they are willing to overcome their prejudices to do so only because they are so proud of their local club, and the more passionate they are, the more provincial they are?? You've noticed that many English clubs are cultivating a world-wide fan base, right? How does that explain their passion? I think a more accurate interpretation is that England has been forced to shed it isolationist, superior attitude in the face of a globalizing, competitive world. And in the process, has been forced to shed its provincialism, xenophobia, and racism, and this is a positive development....

  3. Thomas Hosier, March 21, 2015 at 1:13 p.m.

    Well putting 79% non-English players on the pitch in the CL and EL with non-English coaches didn't do much for the EPL teams ..... so maybe they should go back to all English players. Quien sabe? Back to the drawing board.

    However did Ivan Rakitic find his way to Barcelona?

  4. Kyr-Roger St.-Denis, March 21, 2015 at 6:35 p.m.

    Hogwash. EPL clubs have piles and piles of money. They use that money to buy the best players they can. The player pool they choose from is not the English population of 20-30 year-old males, but the worldwide population of 20-30 year-old males. Considering how small a part of the world's population is English makes it amazing that even 21% of the EPL teams are English.

  5. John DiFiore, March 21, 2015 at 9:03 p.m.

    Uhh, EPL teams need to stick with foreigners. English players aren't that good, overall. England's national team is dead, and ain't comin' back!

  6. Gus Keri, March 21, 2015 at 9:54 p.m.

    In theater, you have the actors, the comparse and the general audience. In soccer, you have the players, the local fans (or the campanilismo, as you called them) and the international fans. In theater, the general audience want good actors to keep coming. Likewise; in soccer, The international fans wants good players to keep watching and supporting. The local fans (campanilismo) will have an "extra" role, just like the comparse in theater.

  7. Zoe Willet, March 21, 2015 at 11:18 p.m.

    First of all, how does this situation compare with other leagues, such as La Liga, Serie A, etc.? Secondly,, nowadays nationality and ethnicity have become more complex: there are many players who have English (British? I don't understand the difference)nationality but result from mixed parents and foreign roots.

  8. Scott Johnson, March 22, 2015 at 2:18 a.m.

    Were the USMNT to compete as an MLS side, it would win both the Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup in a rout. Were the English national team to compete as a side in the Premier League, they would be relegated.

  9. Scott Johnson, March 22, 2015 at 2:48 a.m.

    @Zoe: English generally refers to the specific nationality of being from England, as opposed to Scotland, or Wales, or Northern Ireland, or any of the other various nearby islands that are part of the UK. "British" refers to any of these, and also generally refers to foreigners who emigrate to the UK and naturalize there. A second-generation Indian or West African who lives in London and has has for his whole life, may or may not culturally identify as "English" but probably does identify as "British". (Though legally he would be "English" as England would be his home country, and thus he would eligible for the English team if skilled at football). It's complicated.

  10. Rick Estupinan, March 22, 2015 at 1:57 p.m.


    I would like to know,is the field at the Red Bulls arena in Harrison NJ is of natural grass or artificial turf.if it is natural grass,these is the most beautiful playing field I have ever seen.But of course I understand they have a good ground keeper.For Football,(Soccer),natural grass is the right answer.Players are not afraid of executing sliding tackles,among other things.The ball also rolls better,it covers the distance that the players want it to go,without bouncing so much and so high.For American Football,artificial turf is okay because with the weigh of some of the players,they would destroy it in no time besides,their whole body is protected with padded uniforms,so they don't suffer burns.In sum,good Soccer can only be played on natural grass.It is a good business,they make so much money and yet they can not provide with better playing conditions.

    Leave a Comment. Signed in as Rick Estupinan | Sign Out

  11. Andrew Kear, March 22, 2015 at 8:38 p.m.

    The owner of English Premiere league team wants instant results, and they have little interest in developing English talent. This quick fix mentality is also crippling Anglo American business where short term profits are more important that the economic health of the nation.

    I had no idea only 22% of the players in the premiere league are English. That is roughly equal to the amount of Americans there are in the NHL. Unlike English soccer players at least American hockey players get Olympic and World Cup medals.

    Now I know the reason England has bombed out of the last few World Cups.

  12. Matthew @mkolesky Kolesky, March 23, 2015 at 1:22 a.m.

    The three lions peaked years, no decades ago. The club teams and the EPL market themselives well around the globe but haven't been competitive in European competitions the last 2 years. They will be back.

  13. Rafael Royett, March 25, 2015 at 9:07 p.m.

    British soccer has being failing for years at developing local talent with players and coaches that are only able to perform at a high level in their own BPL (Evident with the National teams results). How many British players/coaches have succeeded recently in Spanish la Liga, Italian Serie A or German Bundesliga? Football/soccer is more global than ever and elite teams go after the best they can find. If top level coaches and players can’t be found or developed locally it is only logical that teams look for options in other parts of the world. Not only tactical, technical and physical skills are preferred but more than ever psychological traits are valued. Players and coaches need to be adaptable as they should be able to perform in very different circumstances. That lack of adaptability is more evident when BPL clubs face teams at continental competitions against teams with very different characteristics and playing styles.

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