A multitude of theories have been propounded in order to explain England’s dismal showing at this summer’s World Cup. Unsurprisingly, the chief scapegoats have included manager Fabio Capello and the players responsible for the side’s last-sixteen exit. However, England’s display is reflective of a range of problems with the domestic game.
Many have pointed to the influx of foreign talent and its effect upon the domestic game as detrimental to the development and progress of English talent (and its knock-on effect upon the English national side). Whilst the number of Englishmen starting for Premier League clubs is dwindling (figures for 2007/08 showed that 34.1% of all starting players in the Premier League that season were English), the increased prevalence of foreign youngsters within English academies indicates that opportunities for young English players to make top-level breakthroughs are becoming even more scarce, meaning that the pool of players available for the England manager is becoming even smaller.
The spending power of the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United, means that competing at the highest level is tougher than ever. Through prudently scouring the world’s best young talent, Arsene Wenger has managed to buck this trend, with the rise to prominence of Cesc Fabregas vindicating the virtues of Wenger’s approach. Arsenal’s ability to compete on a comparatively small budget has sparked a string of imitators, with Chelsea and Liverpool the most high-profile Premier League clubs to follow suit. Players such as Dani Pacheco, Daniel Ayala and Gael Kakuta have all benefitted from this Premier League transfer policy.
This practice has worried the Football Association’s development director Sir Trevor Brooking. Concerned by its increasing prevalence, Brooking stated: “When we set up the academies, we understood the challenge (posed by clubs) bringing in the best overseas talent in the older age groups. What we didn’t quite understand is that that would start to fill up the academy areas and stifle the growth there. Longer term it is extremely worrying.”
Although the ‘foreigner’ argument is often lambasted for its xenophobic overtones, one cannot deny the correlation between the number of home-grown players within a domestic league and international success. Speaking of this link, Brooking said: “If you look at Italy when they won the last World Cup, I think they had over 70 per cent of their league made up of domestic players. Spain, France, Holland, they’re all up there in the 60 per cents. The more that goes down, and the pool of choice reduces, we must come under pressure.”
The reduced number of Englishmen featuring for England’s top clubs also highlights a worrying trend. A look at the squads of two remaining World Cup teams, Spain and Germany, along with that of England demonstrates how the existence of domestic players within top teams is linked to the strength of the national side. Germany’s World Cup squad includes 12 players who featured for one of the sides that finished within the top three of the Bundesliga last season. Similarly, Spain’s squad features 15 players who featured last season for Barcelona, Real Madrid or Valencia. By comparison, (including the withdrawn Rio Ferdinand) England’s squad included just seven players who had turned out for a top-three Premier League side last season.
The game’s regulations supplement the benefits of signing young, foreign players. The complicated laws concerning football contracts in countries such as Spain and Italy mean that opportunities are rife for English clubs to secure cheap, young foreign talent. Bringing in talent from across the continent means that clubs can circumvent domestic FA regulations which prevent any club from bringing players to their academy who live outside the radius of a 90-minute drive from their home ground. Is it any wonder that clubs resort to such measures?
Although Arsenal failed to provide any players for England’s World Cup squad, the fruits borne by their youth policy have certainly justified Arsene Wenger’s model of development. With clubs looking to secure their own interests, they’re under no obligation to promote and facilitate the success of the national side. The FA must look to incentivising the benefits of spurning young foreign talent if the national side are to have any tangible success in the near and distant future.
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