Foreign players and markets

Earlier today, on an Exeter City mailing list I subscribe to (yes, such things exist), Mike Blackstone posed the following question:

"What if the only players who were allowed to play in the Premier and Football  League were to be born in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern ireland  and the Republic of ireland? Would this not make the respective  international teams stronger (eventually) as more home grown players came through the ranks?"

I started replying, the realised it was turning into an epic consideration of all things foreign, football politics, and quite possibly ill-thought through economics of the sport. So, what the hell, I'll post it on here.

Normally this would go over onto Soccerlens, but it's very much a work in progress and I'd be interested for other people to throw their own views in here, as I've undoubtedly missed a few things or there's a stunningly good argument to demolish one, or all, of the points. It might get shaped into some kind of article in coming weeks. Possibly.

Here, in all its unrefined glory (or lack of) is my answer to Mike's question:

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To go back to Mike's original question, I think it would make more players available for the teams, but may not necessarily make it stronger. Ok, so there may be more players to chose from, but that won't help if all the players are of a lower standard than the foreign players they replace. It will weaken the league and, in the long run, damage the international teams, no matter how good the short-term measure would be.

Blaming the foreign influx is an easy way to see a solution to the perceived problem, but there are wider underlying issues here that aren't the fault of foreign players.

1. First of all, foreign players have benefitted the league. Having world class players like Henry, Cantona, Zola, Bergkamp, etc compete in England has made the league more attractive to advertisers and sponsorship and has resulted in more money flowing in. That clubs lower down have not benefitted from this cash is due to the Premier League and the FA, not foreigners.

2. Players such as Henry et al have provided inspiration for youngsters today to take up the game, and have given our game something different. Previously a player such as, say, Matthew Le Tissier, wasn't fancied at international level despite being one of the nearest things we had to a continetal playmaker like Totti or Cantona. Now there's much more of an appreciation of the different types of skills and players and such role models can only be good for the British game. Look at the likes of Aaron Ramsey - he could be that type of player in a few years time. Fifteen years ago, he'd have probably been discarded in favour of a workhorse who would put in energy and muscle but not as much skill.

3. The failure to bring through a generation of younger players is, again, down to the FA and the Premier League. By abandoning the idea of a national centre at Burton, there was no focal point and incentive for PL clubs to invest in their own homegrown talent - indeed, PL clubs weren't overly fond of the FA taking off their brightest young talents on a regular basis. Owen, Joe Cole and others went through the old FA schools. Reviving Burton will give us a better chance at training and indentifying promising youngsters.

As an aside, the whole system of training our children is probably flawed. The emphasis is on putting them into a position as early as possible, stick to it, and win at all costs from a very early age. Other countries encourage children to play on all positions in non-competitive games in their pre-teen years. That way youngsters can enjoy the game without the pressure of having to win, and develop an apprecation of what their colleagues on the pitch can do, as well as enhancing skills they would not have got had they simply played as a striker week in week out.

4. The strength of our economy over recent years has played a part. Foreign players have an incentive to move here because they will often earn more than in their home countires due to the strength of the pound. Their wage demand and cost would be less than British players, so clubs would go for the cheap option. Although, there's also a part of this whereby clubs have thought with short-term goals, seen the success of Cantona, Zola and Henry (and some of the players to progress through Arsenal's ranks) and have tried to do the same, albeit on a cut-price level in line with their budgets. They were cheaper than British players to bring through.

5. By the same token, British players, for whatever reason, have been reluctant to move abroad. Part of this is to do with the inflated wealth whereby they can get more for bench-warming in the Premiership than playing football abroad in a country where the currency is weaker. Also, there's a slightly suspicious attitude of Brits playing abroad, probably scarred by past experiences. Owen Hargreaves was widely assumed to be no good for a long period of time, despite a successful career at one of Germany's biggest clubs. This also gave him a slightly different footballing education and exposure to a different style of play. Who is to say that, for example, Justin Hoyte, wouldn't have been better served by going to Hamburg or PSV rather than Middlesbrough? As has been pointed out, we have a large flow of foreigners coming into this league, but very few going in the opposite direction. A more even import-export ratio of players would benefit British teams.

6. In the midst of all this, you have bad decision making, both from the clubs individually and the governing bodies. No matter how many rules and regulations you put in place, you can't legislate for businesses making mistakes by buying bad players or overspending so they can only afford cheap foreign imports, and nor should you. Plus, nothing can ever account for Steve McClaren.

7.  Supporters too have their part to play in the current state of affairs. By wanting success instantaneously, they're less willing to see a club spend time on developing and blooding younger players. Take Theo Walcott - wonder boy at 17, written-off at 18 when he hardly played, now seen as a key player to Arsenal and a huge blow when injured. Less single-minded managers than Wenger may not have given Walcott the time and patience he needed to develop. A medium-name foreign signing comes with little baggage and may temporarily appease fans, regardless of his ability.

8. As with most markets, this process is circular. Cycles come and go, and we may well see with the credit crunch, a return to home-grown players. With the pound a lot weaker in recent years, foreign players may find they're better served with their careers abroad. Some British players may also decide abroad is the best option. Similarly, clubs that have kept faith in their youth acaemdies, such as Exeter and the likes of Villa in the Premiership, are now starting to reap the benefits with their long-term attitude. In this credit crunch era, with less cash available, many clubs may well start to look at those teams that are successfully bringing through young players and see it as the solution to cutting costs (and external pressures, such as the constant debates on foreigners, may convince clubs its politik to have more home-grown players).

Conclusion: Football is a business, like any other (but also one that does spend a lot of time operating outside the parameters of what most reasonable businesses do) and has now moved into a much more globalised world. This has benefitted the quality of football, globally, as a whole and the Premier League as a market leader in this product. Much of the problems with foreign players can be explained by markets - having restrictions on the market in the form of home-grown only players (short-term protectionism) won't work in the long-term, no matter how attractive a solution it may seem now.

We're moving onto another cycle of the market in footballers and this should even out over the next 12 months. English football currently appears to have the best available man for the job in the post who brings a different sensibility to the game and, you suspect, wouldn't dismiss players from his plans if, say, they moved abroad.

I'm actually pretty optimistic about the long-term future of English future in this current climate. And, yes, looking at the current crop of Welsh players emerging, I'm actually quite optimistic about our chances for Euro 2012 as well.