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Who Needs Foreigners? The Premier League, That’s Who

By on September 6, 2009

Wenger and Bergkamp

Let’s be honest about it, and this is why the xenophobia really annoys me, the Premier League is what it is because of foreigners. And not just on the pitch, but off of it as well. Before foreigners began coming to play in England in the mid-to-late 90s and practically took over in the early to middle part of this decade, England could only look on Italy and Spain and, at times, Germany with envy.

By 2002-03, England had only ever had a side reach the semifinals three times, all Manchester United. Since the final stage of foreign “invasion,” England have “produced” 13 of the 24 semifinalists including multiple appearances by each of the big 4. Of course there was the great run by English clubs in the 70s and 80s which saw Liverpool win 4 times and Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest twice, including a stretch of five years when only either side won the old European Cup. But that was not the Champions League.

In the modern game, England were not able to compete on the European stage until they opened the league up to foreigners. This season there are 337 foreign players from 66 different countries registered to play in the Premier League. That works out on average to about 17 per side accounting for almost 70% of the entire league. In 1992, there were 11.

The fact of the matter is that England does not produce enough footballers of a consistently high quality to sustain an entire league like Italy and to some extent Spain. Yes, I know Spain has a bunch of foreigners but, with less than 200 foreign players, the majority of players are home-grown. Something that hasn’t been true of the Premier League for years. Let’s look at the numbers (based on the 2006-07 season, after which the numbers will have risen):

Percentage of foreign players in all top 4 teams (and in the league overall):

  • Germany 48% (50%)
  • Spain 48% (38%)
  • Italy 48% (30%)
  • France 34% (34%)
  • ENGLAND 73% (59%)

That is a tremendous difference. England’s overall lack of quality compared to the other major countries is evident in the national team. They are currently struggling to find players for more than one position. England has no world-class striker or keeper. They have also hurt in very recent times for a wide player and a right-back. Spain, on the other hand, is spoiled for riches in regards to depth. The England team, while having a few superstars, is one injury crisis away from being mediocre. This is a direct result of English players not being good enough for their own league. That says something about the quality of the average English footballer. Most of them don’t go abroad to Spain or Italy because they don’t have the technical ability required for those leagues, not to mention an inflated value of self-worth.

Off the pitch, in the director’s box, board room, and dugouts, foreigners have transformed the Premier League into what it is. When was the last time a big 4 club had an English manager? I don’t even remember and can’t be bothered to look it up. The two greatest managers in the modern English game, who have done even more to change this league than the players, are Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, a Scot and a Frenchman. Even the teams closest to breaking into the top 4 last season do not have English managers as O’Neill is Irish and Moyes is Scottish.

But it’s not just about picking a side. Wenger almost single-handedly brought the Premier League into the future with his training and lifestyle management. At the time of Wenger’s transformation of Arsenal, United players were still smoking and eating and drinking like they were dockworkers, not professional athletes. To his credit, Fergie saw the writing on the wall far more quickly than any of the English managers and quickly snapped his team into good enough shape to win the treble in 1999 which included England’s first ever modern-day European champion. Let’s also not forget about the owners. Whether some of us like it or not, owners like Abramovich and the Arabs at City have changed the game as well, for better or worse, bringing more money into the English game and therefore better players and increasing parity.

Nevada's
Nevada Smith’s, NYC

And, finally, there are the fans. The Premier League has far more fans outside of England than they do inside and the same goes for the big clubs. There are far more Arsenal supporters in the USA, on the east coast even, than in London or even all of England. Also, it is only recently that the Premier League has received so much coverage here in the United States. Ten years ago, I used to have to drive almost two hours to New York City and pay $20 to watch Arsenal, if they were broadcast that week. Highlights were available irregularly on a semi-weekly basis. Newspapers were available two days after the fact for 8 times the price. My point is that it was hard to follow the club. Not only do some English supporters take what they have for granted, they also try to deny the title of “supporter” to those outside the UK. What is the difference between an Arsenal supporter from New York and one from Yorkshire?

When I go to watch Arsenal here in New York City, I am watching at a pub that is so packed with singing Gooners (see right) that people are waiting outside on line just for the chance to get in and watch the match. Also, I am not even close to being the only American Arsenal blog. There are a number of them, including 7am kickoff, which are well-written, thoughtful, insightful, and, most of all, their writers are as dedicated to the club as anyone. So the condescending attitude which some English supporters take towards foreign fans is ridiculous, especially towards us American supporters.

Through the years I have talked football, online as a moderator at The Gooner Forum or not, with 100s and 100s of people from six continents and I have found Americans who are very knowledgeable about Arsenal and football in general, while at the same time I have found English fans who had no clue what they were talking about. And far more shirt sales and merchandise money are made by the clubs outside of the little island than inside. Not to mention the many American Arsenal supporters who gladly spend a few thousand dollars just to get to London and watch one match. So, to dismiss foreign fans because their nationality somehow makes it impossible for them to understand the game or love the club, is just another way the xenophobia manifests itself.

All in all, the Premier League has been forged and continues to be absolutely propped up both on the pitch and off by foreigners. English supporters should be grateful, because if all the foreign players and managers picked up their things and left, if all the foreign owners who have spent the money to bring great players to England sold the clubs or even stopped spending money, and if all the foreign supporters stopped watching the Premier League on television and stopped buying the shirts, what would be left? At best, a slightly better version of the Championship. [digg=http://digg.com/soccer/Who_Needs_Foreigners_The_Premier_League_That_s_Who]

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