If it weren’t for Brits abroad, it is doubtful that football would be the global game that it is today. Though on the other hand, England might be better at it.
Even the presence of defender Jose Luis Brown, a descendant of Scottish farmers who had a major impact on Argentinian football at the start of the 20th century, in the Argentina side that beat England in the 1986 World Cup shows the impact British expats have had on world football.
But when you think about the most successful British players abroad, especially recently, you tend to think of Real Madrid. In particular Steve McManaman and Gareth Bale, who have both won two European Cups at the Santiago Bernabeu. Or the rather less successful Michael Owen, who still managed to score 16 goals in his solitary season for Real, more than he managed in one season at any point after he left Spain.
None of those players made as many appearances for Real as David Beckham did, though it should be pointed out that Bale is only six appearances behind Beckham, and Madrid have six games left this season, and an extra one should they reach the Champions League final. But the Welshman’s injury makes him unlikely to rack up enough games before the summer.
Given his fame, Beckham is a ubiquitous figure in British football, though thanks to his business interests, his level of celebrity and the fact he doesn’t seem to have any interest in becoming a pundit or a coach the former England captain has become something of a forgotten man in English football. We just don’t see much of him these days.
That was different many years ago, in the days when Brand Beckham was being created.
Still at Manchester United, and one of the poster boys for the Class of ‘92 as a group of local lads took English football by storm, it’s probably unsurprising that it, of the English footballers of his era, it was Beckham who made a move abroad.
A right-sided midfielder who wasn’t pacey, his delivery and technique more than made up for it. And yet that has perhaps been one of the things that holds English players back from continuing their careers abroad: there seems to be a built-in opinion that prevails in English football that foreign players are more technically gifted than English players, and that only the likes of Beckham were prime candidates to make the move.
And since then, there really haven’t been many to make the jump. Certainly not to European leagues. Ashley Cole didn’t fit in at Roma, whilst Joey Barton became something of a cult hero at Marseille, but only for a season. Joe Hart’s season-long stay in Turin now looks set to be characterised by mistakes rather than great saves. Gareth Bale’s success is an exception rather than the rule.
That means those players who do test themselves in a league away from the Premier League are in the minority, but should be applauded to a huge degree. Few have been real successes like Beckham – this is a man with six Premier League titles as well as winning the league in France and Spain – but that might be due to a lack of willing volunteers rather than any particular degree of difficulty in going abroad.
There is a bigger issue for British players currently playing in the Premier League, though. It’s the money.
The Premier League is by far and away the richest league in the world, and the level of wages is much higher, especially for the less prestigious players. We know that Real Madrid and Barcelona can pay top wages for top players, but beyond the biggest clubs, it’s unlikely that a team like, say, Espanyol could rival a similarly positioned Premier League team in terms of wages, especially for a player who won’t be a marquee signing. Perhaps the pay-cut puts players off as much as anything else.
Beckham’s time at United turned him into one of the best players in the world, but it was his growing celebrity that forced him out, and in an era when the Premier League was just getting used to the idea of foreign imports, it is perhaps unsurprising that there was a distrust of a player who was so famous, and indulged so fully in the celebrity lifestyle. Maybe that was seen as effete and soft, perhaps more of a continental attitude than a British one.
Somewhere along the way, British football stopped exporting and started importing. But the world gained a lot from the spread of footballing ideas away from these islands and around the world. We should be applauding the players who do go abroad rather than looking at overseas moves as a last resort.
Beckham proved – and Bale is still proving – that you can be successful outside the cosy confines of a language and culture you can understand. And maybe the rest of the world is better off, too.