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In praise of ‘Carlos Kickaball’

There aren't 'too many foreigners' in British football. In fact, they should be commended for coming over here, taking our jobs and scoring our goals.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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After a performance of staggering ineptitude against Croatia, how do we account for the wretched state of the England national team? Last week, sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe suggested that it was all the fault of those bloody foreigners.

Okay, so he didn’t quite express it in those terms but that was the general tenor of his call for an investigation into the impact of foreign imports on the national team. ‘I understand the complexities of the issues around freedom of movement and competition issues. But it just doesn’t feel we have got the balance right at the moment and that we need to look at what is possible,’ said Sutcliffe. ‘We may need to have some sort of independent look at what needs to happen. We have got the best league in the world and it’s great that we have got the talent that is there in terms of the Premier League. But obviously we need to see how that impacts on and affects the national team.’

When prime minister Gordon Brown made his ‘British jobs for British workers’ speech at the Labour Party conference in September, it was seized on by David Cameron who gleefully pointed out that the PM had borrowed these ideas from the National Front and the British National Party. Back of the net, as they say. However, although Sutcliffe’s sentiments were pretty much identical – namely that foreign imports are damaging the prospects of British footballers – he didn’t get shouted down. Funny that.

In my opinion, Mr Sutcliffe is talking a load of FIFA regulation-sized balls, but unlike his rant about players’ salaries, there are many within the game that share his concerns about foreigners. Sir Alex Ferguson and Steve Coppell have both called for a cap on the number of foreign players while Fifa president Sepp Blatter wants a minimum quota of ‘homegrown’ players for all club teams. Now Steven Gerrard has added his voice to those calling for restrictions. ‘I’m all for there being a rule change to make sure we continue to have one of the best national teams’, Gerrard told BBC Radio Five Live. ‘If something isn’t done, there will be more and more foreigners and they will take over and that is worrying. I think there’s a concern that talent will eventually stop coming through if foreigners do take over our league.’

Certainly, the number of overseas players plying their trade in English football has rocketed since the Premiership was established in 1992. Only 10 overseas players were in the starting line-ups on the first weekend of the 1992/3 season. By contrast only 77 of the 220 players who started a Premier League game two weeks ago were English (1). But why is this a bad thing? Foreign players have undoubtedly helped raised the technical standard of English top-flight football. The Premier League is undoubtedly a far more attractive spectacle as a result of the influx of top overseas stars. The crowds, who had deserted the terraces in the 1980s when there were only a handful of overseas players, have returned in droves.

On the other hand, overseas players tend to get blamed for importing dirty foreign habits like diving, feigning injury, spitting, and wearing alice bands. But the charge that really sticks is that the likes of Carlos Kickaball – to borrow Sir Alan Sugar’s rather derogatory words – are preventing homegrown talent breaking through and that ultimately this has a damaging effect on the England national team. Does this argument stand up to any critical scrutiny? Of course not, and here are seven good reasons why:

  1. Cream rises to the top. Although competition for first team places at the top clubs is much tougher now, the best English players will rise to the top. Most of Steve McClaren’s first choice starting eleven play for the top four English clubs. Paul Robinson admittedly doesn’t but then he gets a lot more practice playing in goal for Spurs than he would in a team with a half-decent defence.
  2. Bottling penalties is an English disease. In the last 17 years England have gone out of five major tournaments after losing penalty shoot-outs. Why is that? Under Glenn Hoddle we didn’t practise penalties. Now we do practise but still can’t hold our nerve. Whatever the reason for our ongoing spot-kick hoodoo, we can’t really blame foreign imports for our propensity to choke when it really matters.
  3. English clubs have always imported players. Celtic’s European Cup-winning team of 1967, all of whom were born within a 30-mile radius of Celtic Park, are often held up as exemplars of a golden age of locally produced talent. But that’s because Scottish clubs always exported talent. English clubs, on the other hand, have always bought in players from all parts of Britain. For example, when Liverpool FC was founded in 1892, the team consisted entirely of Scottish professionals. It used to be the case that behind every successful English club side was a core of Scottish players. Migration has always been part of British football. The difference now is that football’s labour market has been globalised. English clubs import players from other parts of the world. It’s called progress. Deal with it.
  4. English players are too parochial. If tougher competition is making it harder for homegrown players to gain European experience at English clubs maybe they should consider playing abroad. Last year Colin Kazim-Richards was relegated with Sheffield United. A couple of weeks ago he was playing in the Champions League for Turkish champions Fenerbahçe. More homegrown players should follow his example. The money might not be as good but they might learn a thing or two.
  5. English underachievement predates the foreign invasion. 1966 was the glorious exception that proves the rule, namely that England have always underachieved in international football. I am old enough to remember the ignominy of England’s failure to qualify for successive World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978 – the shame of which was only compounded by the embarrassing English ‘tactical support’ given to Scotland. We were crap before the foreign invasion and we’re still crap now. This suggests to me that there is no causal link between foreign imports and English crapness.
  6. Our coaching isn’t good enough. If clubs are opting to buy in overseas imports rather than use home-grown players, there must be something wrong with the way we develop and coach players. Around £65 million a year is invested in English youth academies. However, both Rafa Benitez and Steve Bruce have complained that the academies aren’t working. Sir Trevor Brooking, the FA’s director of development, has warned that coaching for kids in the five to 11 year age group is inadequate. Former Middlesborough striker Massimo Maccarone said that the club’s coaching methods were ‘25 years out of date’. Who was the Boro manager at the time? Steve McClaren. Draw your own conclusions.
  7. Quotas don’t work. They only help to perpetuate mediocrity. France introduced a radio quota for French language songs in 1996. The quota had to be modified in 2000 after radio stations complained that there weren’t enough quality Francophone songs to broadcast. Has French music improved as a result of the quota? Of course not. Or to put it another way, how many French language songs are on your iPod?

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on: spiked issue sport

(1) No end for this foreign romance, Sunday Times, 18 November 2007.

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Topics Politics

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