England Thinks Getting Rid of Foreigners Will Fix the National Team

The English FA is proposing limiting the number of foreign players on Premier League rosters. This is an objectively shit idea.

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Mar 26 2015, 1:40pm

Photo by Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

On any given game day, millions all over the world tune in to the English Premier League to see some of the best players in the world competing. It's lovely to watch Brazilians matched up with Frenchmen, Argentinians squaring off against Italians, and players from all around the world working together as teammates. And yet, it's become common for some to think this is a bad thing for English football.

It's difficult to pinpoint just when exactly it became popular opinion that English football wasn't English enough. It likely occurred sometime in the early 2000s when the EPL became the most profitable league in the world, and as a result, numerous international players began to appear on rosters, taking up spots that could have well gone to English players.

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And when England continued to fail in major tournaments, the lack of first team league minutes for English players became an easy excuse, even though the expectations might have been more of a problem than the actual results.

"The basic idea is wrong," said Simon Kuper co-author of the best-selling Soccernomics, which devotes an entire chapter to the English national team debate. "The idea is that England does badly at football. They do as well as you'd expect."

Kuper added: "It's an old fashioned protectionist idea. You get the question in England that we should be the best in the world because we invented the game. That's ridiculous because we invented the game more than 150 years ago."

Kuper points out that the last two full time national team managers, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson, actually have the top two winning percentages in history. So really, England isn't any worse than it was 30 years ago. In fact, you could argue they are actually doing better than ever.

Roy Hodgson asking God in heaven to deliver him better national team players. Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Yet now England is left grasping for solutions to nonexistent problems because of the silly assumption that the league needs to be more English. The latest proposal is probably the most xenophobic to date. This week the English Football Association proposed changes that would limit the amount of foreign players on EPL team rosters, and that would also make it more difficult for foreign players to obtain work permits.

"Something like 95 percent of work permit appeals go through," former England fullback Danny Mills, a member of an FA commission established two years ago by chairman Greg Dyke that focused on improving the national team, told the BBC. "On what basis? We want the creme de la creme."

The FA's study concluded that under these stricter work permit rules more than 40 roster spots would have opened up this season for English players. And that in turn would lead to better results for the national team.

"We are simply not giving young domestic talent sufficient opportunities at the highest level of English football," Dyke wrote in an op-ed in the Guardian this week.

Youth development is a nebulous term, and while every country seems to have a different idea about it, only a few seem to have mastered it. England certainly hasn't. But Dyke seems to suggest that the problem is not so much with youth development. Instead he surmises that any failures at the youth level could be erased by giving English players more first team minutes at the highest levels, an idea that seem ludicrous.

Kuper said he believes that England would be wise to focus on revamping youth programs instead. The FA proposal does include spending resources on youth development, although none detail a change in philosophy.

"We're training young players the wrong way," Kuper said.

Kuper suggests that England should be teaching young players a more passing-focused game from the moment they first pick up a football. Waiting for a player to get such instruction in the EPL is counter productive.

And the real problem might not be the players, anyway.

"It starts with more and better coaches at all levels who then will produce very good players," former Liverpool and Tottenham director of football Damien Comolli wrote in an email. "Having more English players playing in the PL but [who are] not good enough won't make any sense. The FA are blaming the PL when they should blame themselves for not having developed very good coaches over the last 15 years. England has got less pro license coaches than any other good footballing country in Europe. And the gap is huge."

And there is of course the question of just how much the English team would improve if these changes were enacted—a big 'if' considering two thirds of the teams must approve the proposal. Statistics show that English players accounted for one-third of all minutes played in the EPL during the beginning of the 2014 season. Kuper estimates that would result in about 100 English first team players, a plentiful pool for Hodgson.

"We would say that's a lot of people in the toughest league in the world," Kuper said.

Wayne Rooney during England's 2-1 loss to Uruguay in the 2014 World Cup. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In fact, having English players so focused on staying in England has probably inhibited development. Certainly, many players on the fringes of the first team would benefit from a spell in leagues from around the world that would help them capture different nuances of the game. For example, a player could benefit from spending time in the Dutch Eredivisie where the emphasis is on passing and scoring. But English players rarely play in foreign leagues.

This latest English FA proposal has been buoyed by the surprise emergence this season of 21-year-old Tottenham striker Harry Kane, who spent a considerable amount of time on the bench last year and at the beginning of this season, and who is now among the league leaders in goals.

"How many other Harry Kanes are there in the academies of English football who cannot get a first-team game?" Dyke wrote in the Guardian.

Probably none, said Kuper. Scouting has become so exact that it's almost impossible for any hidden gems not to be discovered by either their own team or by someone else. The fact that Spurs never sold Kane showed that they valued him even if they knew it would take longer for him to develop.

Kuper believes the current league structure—with a slew of foreign players taking up the majority of roster spots, thereby creating the most talented league in the world top to bottom—is what has allowed Kane, who went on loan four times before establishing himself at Tottenham, to blossom.

"His problem wasn't the EPL," Kuper said. "His problem was that he wasn't good enough and now he is...You need to be patient with certain players. Spurs did that with Harry Kane."

He added: "What is helping Harry Kane now is that he has to play at the highest level each week."