England’s hopes of qualifying for Euro 2008 collapsed spectacularly with defeat to Croatia at Wembley on Wednesday. Earlier, their chances had teetered on the brink following a 2-1 defeat in Moscow. In the interval, Steven Gerrard joined a number of players and managers in England calling for a quota on the number of foreign players allowed at each club.
FIFA sees quotas on foreign players as a way of promoting the development of home grown players within each country. European clubs are regarded as the biggest culprits, with large numbers of players from the Americas, Africa and Asia playing in the major European leagues.
While the major European clubs are opposed to such quotas, a few in England have taken the opportunity presented by England’s woes to jump on the quota bandwagon. Sir Alex Ferguson may see quotas undermining Arsenal and Chelsea more than they would Manchester United. Steve Coppell may see quotas as giving Reading a better chance in the English Premier League.
As England’s abysmal failure to qualify for Euro 2004 sinks in, the question will again be asked why there are so few good English players coming through the ranks at Premier League clubs.
The simple truth is that the number of foreign players in England has little or no impact on England’s performances at international level.
Turning the spotlight on the number of foreign players in the league is merely a xenophobic response to another set back for England. The litany of embarrassment and humiliation for England dates back at least to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, when they lost 0-1 to the United States, which team comprised largely of players from the English Second and Third Divisions. This was followed by two thrashings by Hungary in 1953/54 – 6-3 at Wembley and 7-1 in Budapest.
England’s sole international success, the somewhat fortunate World Cup triumph on home soil in 1966, is often looked back upon through the rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia.
The 1970s were a disaster, a 2-3 loss to Germany in the quarterfinals of the 1970 World Cup after having led 2-0, was followed by the failure to qualify for the finals in 1974 and 1978. The failings of the 1970s were all the more inexplicable and frustrating given that English clubs had their most successful period in European competitions between 1968 and 1984. Moreover, back in the late 1960s and 1970s, there were very few non-British players in the top flight.
The fact that the large numbers of Scottish, Welsh and Irish players with English clubs are not available to play for England is a separate consideration. There presence has remained unchanged since the inception of the English league in the late 19th century.
The real issues are the choice of the English management team, the development of footballing skills from a young age, and the structure of the Football Association.
Steve McClaren was never the right choice for England manager. Stints assisting Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and former England manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, and one League Cup win and one UEFA Cup final (losing 0-4 to Sevilla) with Middlesbrough is not the kind of track record that qualifies one to be England manager.
In his column on 11 October 2007 in the Sun, Harry Redknapp observed that he hardly sees young kids having a kick-about in the park anymore. English kids these days are more likely to be glued to the TV or their computer games. In his words “It seems football cannot compete with an X-Box.”
The buck stops with the FA. Its cumbersome structure does not lend itself to effective decision making, despite a structural review by Lord Burns in 2005.
It is not that England does not have several very good players. However, without adequate numbers of top quality English players available to an England manager, there is insufficient competition for places to keep the players on their toes.
The English leagues, in particular, the Premier League, will feel the brunt of any quota on foreign players. The Premier League has become an international brand. A number of clubs are now foreign owned, and the top clubs have a global fan base. The global TV audience generates a large part of the leagues revenues. It would be inconsistent for the English authorities to impose restrictions on foreign players, while the English game reaps the huge financial benefits of unrestricted foreign capital and fans. English football cannot have its cake and eat it.
It is ironical that Gerrard should speak out in favour of a quota on foreign players, when Liverpool’s foreign owners and foreign fans contribute so much to his £120,000 a week salary.
There is no benefit to the Premier League and English football in forcing clubs to substitute top class foreign players with sub-standard English players. Why should foreign owners and foreign fans pay top dollars for second rate teams? Further, forcing the Premier League to make such sacrifices will do nothing to address the shortcomings of the English national team.
Any economist will tell you that quotas are inefficient.
(Article first published on BB6 606: