Offside, 4 March

Barring foreigners won't raise the level of the British game.

Duleep Allirajah

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When Tory leader Michael Howard proposes immigration quotas he is met with a chorus of boos, but when European football’s governing body UEFA announces quotas on foreign imports everyone cheers? Funny that. It’s ironic too that football pundits can be sacked for telling the wrong kind of joke, yet muesli-eating liberals are allowed to complain about foreigners swamping the English game with impunity. Stand up, speak out? You’re having a laugh.

When Arsene Wenger fielded an entirely foreign squad against Crystal Palace in a Premier League fixture last month he was widely criticised. Wenger’s non-British team sheet was described as a ‘disgrace’ by former Arsenal midfielder Paul Merson, whose heavy drinking, addiction to gambling, and squandered potential made him the quintessential red-blooded English footballer.

‘This is all deeply worrying for our football’, said Merson. ‘We’re cutting our own throats by opening up the Premiership to so many foreign players who then use the experience to their nations’ advantage when we come across them in major championships.’ Merson must be back on the booze again if he really thinks that foreign players are engaged in some sort of football espionage, filing secret reports on our sophisticated English tactical formations and training drills. (‘Send ze big lads up for ze corners. Aha, I think ve have cracked ze secret English code.’)

The influx of foreigners after the 1995 Bosman ruling has turned the once-insular English game into a cosmopolitan melting pot. It is generally acknowledged that top foreign players have made English football much more watchable and helped raise the technical standards of young British footballers. However, overseas players are also widely blamed for the spread of nasty foreign afflictions such as diving, feigning injury, and spitting. While you might not approve of such acts of gamesmanship – and I’m the first to holler ‘you diving, cheating bastard’ if an opposition player goes to ground theatrically – you must admit that a bit of outrageous play-acting certainly adds to the entertainment.

But there is one foreign habit which should not be tolerated and that’s the wearing of gloves in winter. There should be no place for that sort of behaviour in football. Never mind Jose Antonio Reyes’ girly attempt to slap Sheffield United’s Danny Cullip, the Arsenal striker should have been given a straight red card for wearing gloves. For God’s sake there were children watching.

Having fought a lone crusade against the mittenisation of football for years I was delighted to read Tony Cascarino’s ‘Real men don’t wear gloves’ piece in The Times this week. ‘The old-school British managers I played under wouldn’t let their players wear gloves because it created the wrong impression’, wrote Cascarino (that impression presumably being that gloved-up players are mincing nancy boys who don’t like it up ‘em) (1).

The more serious charge levelled at the number of foreign imports is that they stifle the development of homegrown talent. These fears seemed justified when Chelsea became the first English club to field an entirely foreign starting 11 in December 1999. Players’ union chief Gordon Taylor has been a longstanding critic of unrestricted player migration. When Arsenal chairman and FA international committee member David Dein recently criticised UEFA’s proposed quota system, Taylor was up in arms. ‘Surely someone in David Dein’s position should not be encouraging clubs to bring in even more foreign players’, he fumed. The PFA is often pilloried as more of a millionaire’s club than a trade union, but Taylor’s deep hostility to cheap foreign imports is perfectly in keeping with the ‘Buy British’ chauvinism of the old trade union bureaucrats.

If it survives the legal challenges that doomed previous attempts to make clubs field fewer foreign players, UEFA’s quota system will mean that teams competing in the UEFA Cup and Champions League will be required to have at least four homegrown players in their squads in the 2006/7 season. This number will rise to six homegrown players the following season and eight by 2008/9. Not all ‘homegrown’ players would have to be British, but they would have to come through the clubs’ academies. ‘The aim of the proposals is to strengthen the football academies of the clubs and to create again a link between the clubs and the community where they grew’, explained UEFA’s head of communications William Gaillard.

But while quotas are good news for mediocre players who wouldn’t make the squad on merit, they won’t improve the quality of academy products. If the top English clubs are opting for foreign imports over homegrown players it is because the academies are simply not good enough. And the introduction of quotas will not magically turn poor youth coaches into good ones. If we want better English footballers we should stop blaming foreigners and start improving the way we coach our young footballers.

(1) Real men don’t wear gloves, The Times (London), 28 February 2005

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