Gareth Bale's world record summer move to Real Madrid and Jermain Defoe's pre-arranged transfer to Toronto FC mark two recent examples of British players leaving English football for new challenges abroad. On the whole, however, it seems that British players are rarely willing to take opportunities to travel beyond their own shores. Those struggling to nail down a first team place often seem more ready to spend time on the bench or to drop down the league ladder than consider a move to a foreign club. At the same time, established players don't seem prepared to take any risks by moving out of their comfort zone.
Playing abroad should be an opportunity that players, especially younger ones, jump at to try and better themselves. It would open them up to new experiences that will ultimately improve them as footballers and as people.
In the past, many British players have enjoyed success in various European countries. Playing for Marseille, Chris Waddle was a French champion three times and also featured in the 1991 European Cup Final. David Platt spent four years in Serie A where he worked alongside such greats as Roberto Mancini and Sven Goran Eriksson, while John Charles is still a legend in Italy after winning three scudetti with Juventus and being named Player of the Year in 1958. In Germany, Kevin Keegan's exploits for Hamburg earned him consecutive Ballon d'Or awards in the late 1970s and Gary Lineker enjoyed a successful stint in the famous red and blue of Barcelona.
In more recent times, David Beckham has been the leading example of a British player forging a successful career overseas. Though Gareth Bale has made a positive start to his career in Spain, Beckham's experiences, which have seen the former Manchester United academy graduate take in some of the world's most adored cities in Madrid, Milan, Los Angeles and Paris, are no longer replicated by many others.
In a world where British techniques and tactics are often shown to be outdated and falling behind those of continental Europe and South America, players would have much to gain from learning about football in a new context. The major footballing benefit according to British players who have played abroad seems to be the positive exposure to eye opening new practises, things that continued to assist them long after they returned home. Having spent three years with AC Milan, former England captain Ray Wilkins was astonished by the incredibly high technical ability of players in Italy and firmly believes that there is no better football education than playing overseas.
Moving to clubs abroad, even just on loan, is also of tremendous benefit to young players looking to make the challenging step up from reserve team to first team. Former Manchester United player and youth coach Jim Ryan, who saw talented individuals such as Ryan Shawcross and Jonny Evans leave Old Trafford for loan stints at Royal Antwerp, believes that young players need to learn to look after themselves and living in a foreign country is a great way to achieve that. The exposure to a new culture, both on and off the pitch, can help young players develop into more well rounded individuals. In many cases it also offers the chance to play regular top flight football, helping young players experience the pressure of larger crowds and national level media scrutiny.
In a similar vein, hoping to kick-start his career and experience first team football, Les Ferdinand enjoyed a loan spell at Istanbul giants Besiktas in his early twenties. The striker, who would go on to star in the Premier League, most notably for QPR and Newcastle United, credits his time in Turkey with making him a better player, professional and man. Ferdinand regularly speaks positively about the eye opening nature of the local support and of being thrust into a vastly different culture. He also remains a strong advocate of players moving abroad if they are struggling to find first team opportunities at home.
All that being said, moving abroad does not come without its difficulties. For all those past players who enjoyed success, many more struggled to adapt to life in a new country. In 1961, Denis Law, Jimmy Greaves and Joe Baker all made high profile moves to Italy, hoping to replicate the success of John Charles, but within a year all three were back in the UK. In the late 1980s, Ian Rush also found his brief time with Juventus very tough, though he maintains that the infamous quote suggesting he described being in Italy as "like living in a foreign country" is actually untrue.
If the right attitude is in place, however, there is no reason that adapting to life and football overseas has to be a struggle. Steve McManaman, who left Liverpool for Real Madrid in 1999, believes that the success of any British player moving abroad simply requires an open minded willingness to learn the local language and become immersed in the culture. Having won two Champions League titles during a happy four year stay in Spain, the former England winger also considers the passage of time to be of vital importance in helping British players to settle in at foreign clubs, though some are not always afforded it or prepared to wait.
Unfortunately, experiencing football overseas is still an option that too few British players seem ready to take, but with an open mind and the right support, playing abroad remains an incredible opportunity, one that many more British footballers should at least consider.
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