Do you remember a time when England fans were hopeful (yes, hopeful) that Manuel Almunia and Mikel Arteta were eligible to play for England? Then more recently it was Adnan Januzaj – and you get the feeling England dodged another bullet there. And it was only in August, before Sam Allardyce’s dishonorable discharge, that the FA announced that it would look into the possibility of naturalising foreign players so they could turn out for the English national team.
In the wake of the Brexit vote, and the increasing intolerance and fear of the Other in British society that came with it, that news garnered more toxic coverage than it should have done, as opposed to a more nuanced and reasoned take. Nonetheless, it is a worrying thought for English football. It has nothing to do with the birthplaces of the players in question, but rather to do with a mentality that should be worrying to England. At the same time, though, English football still appears to be in a healthy state in this regard.
The Premier League is now a global league and football is a global business. That’s a good thing: I wouldn’t have wanted to miss Gianfranco Zola, Dennis Bergkamp, Cristiano Ronaldo or Sergio Aguero at their peak. It’s probably also true that a stronger Premier League with worldwide talent helped to nurture the likes of Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard – when you play with better players, you get better yourself.
That welcoming of foreign players, though, is often blamed for English players not getting a chance in the first teams of the country’s biggest clubs.
Yet, the problem isn’t the presence of foreign imports themselves. Like so many problems in English football and, frankly, the country more generally, the problem is the perception, not the reality.
The perception gap is actually rather paradoxical. It’s almost as though we who cover the Premier League both build it up and knock it down all at once: we call it the best league in the world, but we probably don’t really believe it when we say it. The truth is, it’s probably just the best marketed league in the world, the best packaged. And that leads us to believe that players who come from other leagues are somehow technically better, and therefore more able. The flipside is, even if we don’t think it’s the best league in the world, we probably do see it as the most important: the money is so great and the fear of failure so big that the pressure to get results is back-breaking. And that means these foreigners who we feel are technically more proficient are the ones we trust; not the homegrown youth.
Take Vincent Janssen for example. Here’s a man playing only his second full season of top flight football. He had a wonderful second half of the season last year – and not a stellar first half – with AZ Alkmaar and got his big move to the Premier League, but he’s not much more proven than any of Tottenham’s other youngsters.
That’s not to moan about Spurs: their record at producing young players, English or otherwise, is top notch. It’s also the case that none of the other youngsters in the current squad are out-and-out strikers like Janssen is. And, well, if you’re going to moan about Tottenham not giving young English strikers their chance, just look who’s keeping Janssen out of the team.
But the funny thing is that this fetish for foreign talent is a problem on both sides of the perception gap: it stops young English talent from being relied upon (though let’s face it, it’s very likely many of them simply aren’t good enough) but it also piles immense pressure on a young Dutch kid like Janssen, who should still be nurtured like any of Tottenham’s other youngsters who only really had one good half of a season under their belts. Janssen is now one of the under-pressure strikers in the Best League in the World, a league where results are king, yet if he were English – Marcus Rashford springs to mind – he’d be given a bit more time to grow.
Which is strange, because the usual complaints are that English youngsters are hyped too much and have too much pressure to deal with. And that’s a good thing because it means, on the whole, we still see that young talent needs to be nurtured, not hyped.
And the reason Janssen has expectation on his shoulders and Rashford doesn’t right now is because Janssen cost millions of pounds, whilst Rashford has millions of pounds of underperforming talent around him. Which is also a good thing: despite the billions in the game, we haven’t totally lost sight of the value of money.
So English football is, at once, too excited by foreigners (leading to the Janssen case) and yet too afraid of them (leading to the N’Zonzi and English-youngsters-not-getting-a-chance cases). But it is also, at once, guilty of losing sight of what really matters by piling pressure onto youngsters and yet still able to understand some of the more basic values we thought it had lost.
Opinion is divided over this whole debate, and that’s probably what leads to the split and almost paradoxical views. It is encouraging that, on the whole, there is still nuance in the debate, but as more money comes into the league, and more and more teams are packed tightly together at the top of the table the pressure will only grow. And if that’s the case will we be able to keep hold of the nuance?