In 2000, Chelsea sacked player-manager Gianluca Vialli after some bad results, and after he supposedly fell out with players like Gianfranco Zola, Dan Petrescu and Didier Deschamps.
They replaced Vialli with another Italian coach, Claudio Ranieri, the former coach of some big European clubs like Napoli, Valencia and Atletico Madrid. There was a distinct continental feel to the club’s culture, and something which was very much at odds with the traditional nature of the football club.
They were successful, though. In the late 1990s, Chelsea won two FA Cups, a League Cup and a Cup Winners’ Cup, and even if they weren’t necessarily spoiled by success by the time Roman Abramovich came along to buy the club, they were certainly one of the top clubs in the country by then: the Russian wasn’t buying a team pottering around the relegation places.
Chelsea weren’t at the very pinnacle, though. At the start of the Premier League’s inception, and when the money started to filter into the clubs, the league could start to rival Italy for some of the better players around Europe, and even if attracting the best foreign talent to Britain wasn’t exactly easy – or even desirable – for some of the midtable clubs in the league, Chelsea would always have a postcode appeal that no other club in the country could match.
Football has always been an international game, but there was something slightly jarring about the speed with which England started becoming an international league – mostly because it never was before.
Back in 1981, Johan Cruyff seriously considered a move to Leicester City, before joining Spanish side Levante – Valencia’s second club – instead, but it would have been a move to shock football. Not just because Leicester were hardly a top team – though that would have been shocking, too – but also because the English First Division wasn’t really a place such a technical foreign footballer might have looked to ply his trade. He would also have been one of the few foreign players in the league.
That was never really true for Italy and Spain, and even France. Each of those countries have strong links with either South America or Africa, in terms of culture and identity as well as language. Plenty of players from these regions played in Europe years before a more globalised economy and everything that goes with it made foreign signings a common occurrence in football.
Cruyff himself was a player who starred for a club in a foreign league. And when a man like that makes comments about the amount of foreign players in Chelsea’s team around the turn of the Millennium, it does start to look a little out of place.
“Chelsea are the Foreign Legion. The may play in the English league, but they are no longer an English club. Sometimes there is not one Englishman in the team. I don’t like it at all. I can’t understand how the fans accept that.”
Johan Cruyff, 2000
But there’s a nuance to what Cruyff was talking about. It’s likely that he didn’t just mean ‘foreign players’ as a vague concept, but the kind of player who seems to be travelling the world in search of the next pay cheque. Perhaps Cruyff would know about this sort of thing better than most, having left Barcelona in the late 70s to play in America and Spain before returning to the Netherlands and playing for boyhood club Ajax again before finishing his career with one more year at their arch-rivals Feyenoord.
But Cruyff was also a man with a very strong sense of belonging. As one of the first foreign – and not naturalised Spanish – players allowed to play in Spain under the Francoist regime, Cruyff seemed to take massively to his new home in Barcelona. He used his privileged position as a foreigner in the country to advance Catalan causes, and even his son, Jordi, is named after the patron saint of Catalonia – Saint George, the reason why the St George’s Cross takes pride of place on Barcelona’s badge.
And so perhaps was Cruyff was worried about was people who weren’t like him, who would join clubs in foreign countries and have no kind of loyalty to the team they were joining. Most clubs have some sort of link to the area they represent, Barcelona may claim to represent its people more than most clubs do, but every club has some sort of identity, and something that a certain type of foreign signing may not buy into. Cruyff’s words might ring true for a lot of people – and a lot of signings – these days.
You might wonder what the issue is now. It’s not a political point, but a footballing one, and football 20 years ago may still have been rooted in national peculiarities and traditions. But these days it’s a global game with global tactics, and every modern club seems to play in a very similar sort of style – off-the-rack tactics are par for the course, and railing against foreign signings is akin to bemoaning foreign drinks in Starbucks.
And yet, Cruyff’s own disciples are really rather prevalent in the Premier League these days. After so many years of the footballing equivalent of globalisation, there may never be any going back to most clubs having at least an English core – and why would anybody want that anyway? – but there might be signs that the nuances of Cruyff’s words are coming to the fore.
Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano both spent years at Barcelona before arriving at Manchester City and bringing Pep Guardiola to the club. In the last three years, City have spent over £100m on John Stones, Kyle Walker and, less sexily, Fabian Delph – that’s over £100m on three Yorkshiremen. Raheem Sterling has also arrived fairly recently, whilst the club have invested heavily in their academy, even if City, and English football, is yet to see much of a benefit from that money.
Everton, too, are a club now managed by another former Cruyff player from the Dream Team era of Barcelona in the early 1990s, Ronald Koeman. This summer, Koeman, too, has spent big money to bring in Michael Keane and Jordan Pickford, as well as bringing Wayne Rooney back to the club.
Foreign signings have arrived, too, but there’s a very definite English core at Goodison Park, and the club have a very recent habit of bringing through exciting English talent. Five of the U20 World Cup winning side were Everton players, and that doesn’t even include the likes of Tom Davies and Ademola Lookman who made first team appearances for Everton last season.
The idea, though, shouldn’t necessarily be to produce English players, but to populate the club with players who know what it means to play for the shirt, just as Cruyff knew what it meant to wear the badge of Barcelona. He didn’t need to be born in the region to understand it, and he ended up becoming so Catalan that he managed the unofficial Catalonia national team. His son, Jordi, even played nine times for Catalonia – exactly the same number of caps as he made for the Netherlands, and he scored more goals for Catalonia, too.
There’s a nuance to what Cruyff meant when he bemoaned what he called Chelsea’s ‘Foreign Legion’ approach in the late 90s and early 2000s. The link between the fans and the club is the link between the club and its area and heritage as well as its duty to represent its people. It’s scary to think that Premier League clubs may have already lost that permanently.