The Global Game: Is Exporting Players the Key to National Team Success?

The best footballing nations are exportation leaders – or so the data suggests. Is it time for England to start sending players abroad to make them more complete both on and off the pitch?
July 8, 2016, 4:30pm
PA Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Football in 2016 is a truly global game. This summer's European Championships may have been contested by 24 nations, but the players present travelled from a total of 38 countries, ranging from England and Spain to Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, and Qatar.

Modern club sides are, of course, incredibly diverse. The top 13 (top 10 + three English) European first-team squads, as stated by UEFA's official rankings on 1 June 2016, are constructed as such (not including players out on loan):

Of 323 players across 13 clubs, 59% are foreign imports. Where, then, are these 191 overseas players from? Incredibly, they hail from 42 different nations, ranging from Brazil and Spain through to Burkina Faso, Gabon and Armenia – although 71% come from just 12 of those countries. Those 12 nations are ranked in the table below (fig.2).

Each of the current top-10 FIFA ranked best nations feature (as of June 1st) with the exception of fifth-placed Chile – who have just won the Copa America for the second consecutive year. With three players – Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal, Arturo Vidal of Bayern, and Claudio Bravo of Barcelona – they have just slipped off of the list. The FIFA rankings can be misleading due to calculation timings, game frequencies etc., but as a secondary guide I think we can agree that, subjectively speaking, this list features the world's best national sides – with the top seven particularly accurate.

Now – and this is where things get particularly interesting – if you extend the list (fig.2) and arrange by FIFA world ranking, there are only two nations from the top-20, and five from the top-30, that don't feature a player at a foreign club in the top-13 European club sides (fig.3):

In ascending order, those nations are Northern Ireland, Slovakia, Romania, Ecuador and, most prominently, England.

That's right, England. Ranked as the 11th best footballing nation on the planet by FIFA, the birth-place of the modern game with arguably the strongest league in club football, England does not feature a singular export in a top European club. But 42 other nations do.

This list is easily reduced, too. If you include Liverpool (Martin Skrtel), Manchester United (Paddy McNair, Antonio Valencia), and Napoli (Vlad Chirches, Marek Hamsik) – all indisputably major clubs in their respective leagues – England would be the only top-30 nation without a top-10 club-side export.

If you then extend the initial club list (fig.1) onwards, you have to wait until number 27 (Lazio) to find your first Englishman, Ravel Morrison, who made just eight substitute appearances last term. Second is Luke Steele, who plays for 123-ranked Panathinaikos in Greece, with third and fourth – Chuks Aneke and Jordon Mustoe – at Belgian sides ranked 127 and 198 respectively. There are more, but all at clubs beyond the top-500 European sides. In short, that's just four English exports in over 500 top club sides – and not one is anywhere near the national setup.

With this in mind, you wouldn't have trouble stating that England are the only "top nation" without exports playing at the highest club level. Think about that.

There are different ways of interpreting this information, of course. You could argue that being able to pick the 11th best footballing national side from just one league is quite an achievement, and that England should be proud of that. But you could similarly argue that England's repeated international-level failings – including their recent humiliation to 34th-placed Iceland – is down to a lack of talent, substantiated by a lack of European clubs signing English players. I'm sure you could argue many other things (and please do in the comments), but I'd suggest that there is a lesson to be learnt from the more successful nations: export more players.

Would the England national side benefit from some of its players moving abroad? // Oliver Weiken/EPA

If players like Harry Kane, Joe Hart and Dele Alli left for European clubs, would the Premier League suffer? It's unlikely. The Premier League is attractive because of its international mix of talent (much like cosmopolitan capital cities such as London and Berlin). In fact, it would be more likely to suffer if exotic allures were reduced. But would the national team improve? The data suggests it would. Here are four reasons for that.

Point A: With players moving abroad there would be gaps to fill. Clubs could either replace them with more glittering imports, or ensure further investment in and promotion of home-grown talent. The latter would see more Englishmen playing in England and thus provide a bigger national pool to choose from. The emergence of the youngest England squad in years would suggest youth trust and investment has begun – but by first exporting home-grown starlets instead of the league's foreign attractions, pool-growth is further stimulated, as illustrated by the next point.

READ MORE: Do British Managers Have a Future in the Premier League?

Point B: Don't just examine other nations' export figures, but also their league set-ups. Argentina and Brazil pack their leagues with home-grown players and export the superstars to Europe. Top German, Spanish, Portuguese and Belgian clubs promote and purchase home-grown players as a matter of course, and create room by exporting some – both superstars and mainstays.

Point C: As I have stated in a pervious article, exploration, in general, broadens an individual's perspectives. It exposes one to previously unimagined cultures, systems, and relations that irreversibly affect a person. One is challenged to step outside their comfort zone, and develops positively for it.

For footballers, a general enhancement in perspective would boost them, specifically through exposure to fresh tactics, characters, rivalries and atmospheres. After the initial suffering that comes from abandoning familiar comforts, they would thrive – much like the most successful Brazilian, Argentine, French and Spanish players. Even consider England's recent conqueror Iceland – their Euro 2016 squad did not include a single home-based player.

Point D: The Premier League is a media pressure cooker where careers are destroyed as quickly as they're over-hyped. If taken out of the spotlight to learn their trade, we could see more youth blossom, unhindered by national expectation. England would birth more players like Owen Hargreeves and Eric Dier, rather than those like Theo Walcott and, perhaps, if action isn't taken soon, Raheem Sterling.

Following England's exit, Sterling received an extreme amount of criticism from the British press // Peter Powell/EPA

This isn't just about why Englishmen should move abroad, but why they don't. Perhaps it's as simple as fear – fear of a perceived language barrier, and the route being mainly untrodden. Maybe they've simply got it too good already to take a leap into the unknown. This is precisely why the initiative should come from the regulatory organisation, or even the advisory PFA, eventually becoming institutionalised within the FA and perhaps even our broader culture. "Head abroad: you'll grow and succeed".

More should be done to encourage younger players to move overseas – even if just for a one-year culture exchange (which is in fact a hot-topic at Chelsea (rank 5th) these days with their (rank 163rd) Vitesse Arnham exchange programme). And instead of replacing – typically with imports – more investment should be made in youth promotion and scouting of lower leagues. Of course, you could operate both thoughts in tandem – export home-grown and import foreign – but this could lead to a duller Premier League made attractive by its internationalism. Regardless, the point remains: the best nations export players to the best teams, and England don't export any.

Of course, all of this could prove moot with Britain's imminent departure from the European single market. Will the Chinese and Indian leagues fancy negotiating an Erasmus programme? My money's on yes.