At first they were almost a novelty. Foreign players in the top flight were deemed a little out of place, unlikely to fit in with the English game and were not expected to last. Before too long, however, the merry band of eleven overseas imports that began the inaugural weekend of the Premier League back in 1992 began to grow and before long captured the public imagination.
Witness Jurgen Klinsmann’s goal celebration and Eric Cantona’s collar – school kids all over the country took to these foreign stars in the way they would in future years with ‘Pokemon’ and ‘Gogos’. These stars were a fascinating commodity.
I’d earmark the transfer of Dennis Bergkamp as a tipping point for the widespread introduction of the overseas player. Whereas Cantona and Klinsmann were both in English football to re-ignite floundering careers, the Dutchman’s move to Highbury was a case of a genuine world class player moving into English football when other top leagues were available.
But since the major influx sparked by the moves made by Bergkamp and Middlesbrough’s Juninho, what has been the impact on football in this country?
Diving, club disloyalty, badge kissing, exorbitant wages and ridiculous fashion accessories are some of the clichéd suggestions when the foreign legion is mentioned in relation to the Premier League.
It would be ludicrous to suggest that foreign imports have only had a negative impact on English football, so why are we so slow to laud the incredible product their introduction has created?
The world of football has moved on dramatically from the days of Michel Vonk and Tony Dorigo, and whilst we have every right as fans to be cynical about the role of the ever-deepening sea of imported players, there can be no doubt that the quality and intensity they have brought with them is remarkable.
Does the influx of non-English footballers hinder our national team? Several key media figures have in the past bemoaned the lack of opportunities afforded England’s brightest and best, but is this a fair reflection?
Was the English national team in a better position when the top flight was filled with home grown players in 1992 than it is now, with only a handful making it into each Premier League squad?
There most certainly is blame to be apportioned towards various bodies within English football for the consistent under-achievement on the world stage, but I have always found attaching so much flack to the transfer policies of Premier League clubs as simplistic and inaccurate.
The Bosman ruling, mixed with an expanded Champions League format and relaxed EU regulations on worker freedom of movement has meant that player fluidity has exploded in the last fifteen years. Combine this with the financial spending power of sides like Chelsea and Manchester City, and the rise in overseas talent arriving on these shores is inevitable.
Arguably, however, the higher number of foreign managers has had an even greater impact on the division than most of the players. Love them or hate them the roles of Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho in crafting the tapestry of the league over the last 15 years has been absolutely huge.
Wenger, in particular was instrumental in bringing a higher level of professionalism to the game, improving player’s diets, ending the drinking culture at Arsenal, and securing a domestic double within two years of arriving at Highbury.
From there, and with Manchester United also setting a bar of professionalism and excellence, the rest of the division has been forced to raise their game or risk being left behind.
But what is the legacy of this prolonged period of influx, and can it continue? The need for continued financing of bigger contracts and larger transfer fees has, everyone knows, forced several clubs into financial ruin. UEFA and FIFA are trying to push clubs towards more responsible spending and use of home grown talent. This is all well and good, but as Chelsea have shown, you can attempt to streamline and taper off spending on expensive players, but if results are not coming, there is, if you can locate the finances, only one option.
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