The head of the English Football Association is campaigning to increase the number of homegrown players in club squads from eight to 12. Greg Dyke has used this season’s star, Tottenham striker Harry Kane, as a prime example of the kind of talent that clubs need to do better at fostering.
Dyke is also proposing tougher rules on non-EU players in the English game, on the premise that the game is in danger of “having nothing to do with English people” and is littered with “bog-standard foreign players”. He asks: how many other Harry Kanes are there in the academies of English football who cannot get a first-team game?
Ultimately, he believes his proposals will increase the chances of England having success in international competitions. Dyke is projecting at least a semi-final appearance in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Lack of evidence
The proposals will make it easier for players whose clubs are at the top of the FIFA rankings to play in England and more difficult for players from those clubs which have been less successful internationally. In reality, Dyke’s proposals are high on soundbite and low on research and evidence.
When the Premier League started in 1992, there were just 13 non-British players starting in the first set of fixtures. Liverpool had two – Bruce Grobbelaar (Zimbabwe) and Jan Molby (Denmark) – and Manchester United, who won the season, had two (Peter Schmeichel (Denmark) and Andrei Kanchelskis (Ukraine). England, however, failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. They also failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1974 and 1978, when there were next to no foreign players in the English game.
By 2013-2014 there were 61 different nationalities playing in the Premier League – and 152 foreign players started the first set of fixtures in August. England, however, qualified for the 2014 World Cup (although perhaps it would have been better had they failed to do so, so poor were their performances). So there seems to be little correlation between country of origin for players and international success.
English football had a “golden generation” of players around 2000-2010, in the likes of Michael Owen, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes, the Neville brothers, Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell. They had great success with their domestic teams, but won nothing for England. Throughout this era the Premier League was full of foreign players.
A look at the owners
Dyke also singularly fails to mention that more than half the clubs in the Premier League have non-English owners – Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Leicester, Hull, Aston Villa, QPR, Southampton, Sunderland.
Another (Spurs) are owned by a Bermudan-registered company and Crystal Palace’s owners are in talks with an American private equity company about a takeover. The aims and ambitions of these owners do not necessarily include success for the England national team, yet there are no proposals from the FA to restrict foreign ownership.
Time to boost talent
The FA will point to the new National Football Centre it has built at St George’s Park in Burton, aimed at developing the best young talent. But it ignores the fact that smaller clubs are closing and participation has fallen significantly, especially among 16-19 year-olds.
Only a year ago the FA had its funding cut by Sport England after football suffered a sharp decline in the number of people regularly playing it. Anyone who has seen the state of park football in this country will know that local authority funding cuts have been especially severe on recreational sport – and this has a severe impact on youth football, where the future stars are going to come from, as much as anything else.
If Dyke wants to identify why England have not been as successful internationally as he wishes, perhaps he should look at the foundations of the game. To play football well youngsters need to learn the basics. The numbers are slightly disputed, but in 2013 these were the number of people holding proper coaching qualifications:
In Spain there was one qualified coach for every 17 registered players, Germany has one for every 150 players, but in England there is one qualified coach for every 812 registered players. Being taught by enthusiastic parents and amateurs is good in the sense that at least someone is spending time on sport with kids, but it isn’t the right people and the right skills aren’t being taught.
The FA boss has historically been successful in saying things that will make him popular – and these comments will find support among a large section of the UK football fan base as well as many current and ex-players. His comments also tap into the present anti-immigration views that are strangling adult debate on anything to do with the subject, for fear of being labelled soft on the matter.
In effect, though, Dyke is is trying to make football a separate industry from others. There are no such rules restricting the recruitment of doctors, magistrates, actors or bricklayers – so why should they be unique to football players?
It’s an opportunistic means to divert attention from the fact that the England is not very good at international tournament football – but neither have they always been particularly good in the past either. Blaming it on Johnny Foreigner is a simplistic approach to a far more complex problem.