Alex Song’s determination highlights what is missing with many young footballers

It’s not a new debate nor is it one to do strictly with football, or money, but just why is it that English players, in large, refuse to travel abroad and make their home in other countries?

I thought about this whilst reading Ruud van Nistelrooy’s response to David Winner’s fascinating book about Dutch football, Brilliant Orange. Van Nistelrooy said:

“As a Dutchman reading it, it’s a kind of mirror. It shows you things about yourself you’ve never seen before.”

Although van Nistelrooy is one individual and not representative of the whole, the mere fact that a Dutch footballer has read a book outlining theories on why his nation may perform like they do on the pitch is a welcome break from the tabloid pages most invariably find themselves in.

Succumbing to a generalisation I think it is absolutely fair to say English players don’t exhibit the kind of cultural versatility that players from Europe certainly possess. Taking a loosely football related argument as an indicator of the chasm between the breadth of adaptability on show at this World Cup alone we can take Germany’s match against England. When the final whistle blew we can safely assume that it was the German players who approached the English, speaking English. I don’t see John Terry offering a conciliatory ‘guten tag’ to Bastian Schweinsteiger had the roles been reversed. And with some of the Dutch, Spanish, German and French players able to give press conferences in two, sometimes three, languages I’m left wondering why we can’t replicate a similar standard of diversity.

This isn’t to uniformly blame the current English players in our league; they are more products of a longstanding tradition that we don’t travel well. Why is this? The first reason is that English has been the desirable language of business for a long time (although that’s now being gradually challenged). Another reason is that in the past five or six years especially we’ve had a strong showing in Europe, which confirms to many (albeit in this country more than others) that the Premier League is the best league in Europe. These are strong reasons to remain in England but what about the years where English football was by far a distant second to Spain and Italy?

A persistent and undeniable inability to want a move onto new shores, elsewhere in Europe, is very much an English failing. Talented foreign players constantly flood into England and increase their chances of becoming better footballers, often ousting promising homegrown talent in the process, but this is hardly their fault. A distinct complacency (perhaps even a fundamental lack of curiosity or belief) certainly exists amongst our players, both established and promising. It’s always beneficial for a proportion of our players to attempt life outside the Premier League; it gives them a chance to hone their match intelligence and general adaptability (something evidently lacking at this World Cup), on the pitch, culturally and socially. We definitely understate just how difficult it is for young foreign players to make it in this country (there is a dangerous habit of viewing young players as adult footballers, which is completely unfair, in our media). If we take Alex Song’s experiences as an example; he was born in Cameroon, grew up in France and moved to Arsenal in his late teens:

“Coming to Arsenal at the age of 17 was more difficult than going to Corsica at 13. There, I had someone [François Ciccolini, a youth team coach from the Corsican club Bastia]; when I came here I didn’t have anybody, I didn’t understand the language, the food was very different and I had no confidence. I lived in a hotel and when training ended I would go to my room and spend all of my time on the phone. To leave everybody you know in France and come to a new country, that is not easy. But it got better because I realised I had the boss [Wenger]. He would speak to me all the time at training and that gave me motivation.”

Aside from the very personal and individual struggles that Song overcame to make a success of his talents his story is indicative of the kind of hardship foreign players can endure, though far from easy, for the sake of what they love doing; which is playing football. That Song has potentially taken the place of a less able, less willing, less determined homegrown player should not be an issue for us, which is why merely citing foreign influence as the major contributing factor of the English failing is a parochial stance – it does not paint the whole picture.

I can’t explain what keeps our players caught in their home countries for all their playing careers, even to the detriment of their progression as professionals. Even the successes (Paul Lambert, Chris Waddle, David Beckham, Steve McManaman) are more exceptions that prove the rule. It’s a cultural and educational problem too, not simply footballing; sport merely reflects, not causes, the endemic issues within our culture.

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