On the back of last year’s high profile departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso and this year’s seemingly inevitable courting of either/both Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres, the Premier League is again in danger of losing two world class talents. Despite the coinciding absence of English clubs in the latter stages of the Champions League last season the pull of foreign shores is not a new phenomenon.
It is important to remember that Thierry Henry, perhaps the greatest forward in our league’s history, chose Barcelona (and was vindicated), Kaka refused outlandish sums of money from Manchester City and the interests of Chelsea to sign for Madrid, David Villa was never going to consider leaving Spain, and Karim Benzema refused the overtures of Sir Alex Ferguson just like Ronaldinho had some years ago. They are all examples of world class talents choosing against English shores (even in a period where English football had consistently excelled in Europe).
This is not to say the league has not boasted some of the best footballers in the world; Torres, Fabregas, Masherano, Drogba, Rooney, Cole, Evra etc – we certainly hold our talents. But a crucial difference is that our league’s finest have invariably been brought in from abroad, nurtured, and then desire a move when established: Ronaldo became the world’s best at United, Fabregas became the elite footballer he is at Arsenal, Torres was never prolific until Benitez brought him to Anfield…The point is that these individuals (though evidently talented from the outset) have been nurtured into world class players in England. And from England, near the peak of their powers, they will all choose foreign shores to ply their trade; in this case Spain. Barcelona, on the other hand, have developed seven of their starting XI into home grown world class players but the likes of Xavi, Puyol and Iniesta would never consider leaving. Add to this that the best players in the world would much rather join them in Spain than one of England’s top clubs and you see the differences in how the English game is received by already world class footballers (Villa is the latest example of someone who would never have contemplated another move when the transfer window opened).
This has always been the case, though. It has only been evidenced most spectacularly with Ronaldo’s record breaking transfer fee. Why does Spain, or should I say Barcelona and Real Madrid, hold such a pull? Well in the case of the former it is quite easy to see why at this present stage; holding half a dozen of the best players in the world, playing a brand of football that is intertwined with their history, and coming to the peak of nearly two decades worth of evolving football ideals is reason enough. Madrid are more of an enigma at present; their lure is based on five consecutive European cups in the 50s and the glamorous recent past of Zidane, Figo, Raul, Carlos, Ronaldo et al. But in the last six years their European record is, well, very poor. But Spain has been elevated to a dream destination even more by the deterioration of the Italian allure following the calciopoli scandal of 2006; Milan and Juventus are not the names they were just five years ago.
Spain ups its ante even more if we consider the background of the last three Ballon d’Or winners (runners up and third place included) over the last three years; all Spanish or Portuguese speaking. Though only a cursory indicator it goes some way in highlighting that the flair, climate, language, food, and culture of Spain are far more conducive to the current crop of the world’s best players. If we take into account the voiced worries of Torres regarding his long term health in the Premier League there’s yet more indication that the highly physical and suffocating energy of English football is another reason for the best attacking talents to look elsewhere.
The real problem for England is perhaps not holding on to these players but ensuring that future talents don’t want to leave when they become the best. The lack of veritable home grown talent making headway in the top flight is a major stumbling block in this respect. We have established players on the world stage (Gerrard, Lampard, Terry, Cole, Ferdinand, and Rooney) and the bordering xenophobic nature of English players means they are less than likely to ever leave their home country. But, again, there aren’t enough of them coming through. So should we fight to hold on to our best players or do we continue to find talent abroad, nurture them, and let them leave when in their prime (certainly the Portuguese/Spanish speaking players)? If we focus on English youth then there is no need to do either.
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