Greg Dyke, the Chairman of the Football Association, recently released a four-point plan to help revive English football and said that it's "pretty depressing" that Manchester City have won this season's Premier League with only two English players regularly in their starting line up. A large part of his plan would limit the number of foreign players in English football; and at the same time reform the loan system and having a tougher process for granting visas to non-EU players. These comments come as the World Cup in Brazil approaches, at a time when in every pub and around every dinner table people are debating the quality of the England squad and our chances in the tournament.
The World Cup, one of the world's most watched sporting events, will see 32 nations compete for football's most coveted trophy. The final alone in South Africa 2010 saw over a billion people tune into watch. Football is by far one of our country's greatest cultural exports, with 643million worldwide homes watching Premier League matches regularly. The growing presence of EU and non-EU players is a testament to the benefit of free movement of labour and capital in what is essentially now a global business. Yet these comments by Dyke come at a time when the current political climate in Britain reflects a worrying rise in scepticism about immigration and prejudice against foreigners as a whole.
This isn't the first time that leaders in the sport have weighed in on the issue of the growing number of foreign players in the Premier League. Rio Ferdinand only last year wrote an article arguing for a cap on non-EU players, stating that having so few English players in the Premier League diminishes the England team.
The statistics reflect this concern with the Premier League having one of the lowest numbers of home country players than any other European league. Only 32.2% of starting players are English, contrast this with the season of 1992/93 where there were only 11 foreign players in the starting line ups, and you can see the pressing issue.
The influx of foreign players has come as the price of TV rights for Premier League games has skyrocketed, with Sky Sports and BT Live spending a record £3 billion on TV rights from 2013-16. This means that each Premier league club now receives an extra £60 million a year from their share of TV rights, which is quickly spent on transfer fees and wages, bringing the best foreign players to England. This has changed the reasoning behind the buying of foreign players, from the original desire to get better players 'cheaper' to clubs now having the money to buy the best players in the world.
While some see this as a negative for English international football, players like James Milner and Frank Lampard see it as a positive, stating that playing alongside world class footballers makes them better players, by having to constantly fight for a place in the team. This debate often ignores the amount Foreign players bring to English clubs, both as individuals and as members of a team. These include individual economic benefits such as increased advertising and exposure, as well as benefits to the team which include bringing wider knowledge and skills that English players may not have necessarily had and can pickup.
Many fans would agree that there are far too many foreign players in the Premier League but the same fans see the foreign players at their particular club as an asset, often adopting them as their own. This is similar to the wider view of immigration, there is a large disconnect between people's personal experiences with migrants which is generally positive and the general prejudice against immigration itself.
Dyke's proposed changes to the loan system and the visa system for non-EU players, does not take into account the tough visa process many non-EU players already face, having to hit targets and prove their experience. What is more worrying is that it is a serious challenge to the free movement of labour and the free movement of capital, in what is now a global sport. There is a clear demand for the best talent in the world, therefore the FA has no more of a right to restrict non-EU players who are highly skilled professionals wishing to pursue a lucrative business in the UK, than the Government have to restrict non-EU citizens who may also be highly skilled migrants where there are skills shortages in this country.
The blaming of the number of foreign players for the decline of the England squad, like the blaming of immigrants for the decline of job opportunities or wages is a smokescreen, detracting from the real issue. In 1994 we had a handful of foreign players in English football and yet England didn't qualify for the World Cup, this in itself blunts the argument made by Dyke. I, like every football fan, welcome a renewed effort to foster English football talent and maintain England's status as one of the greatest teams in the world. However I believe to do this we need to emulate other country's successes with their youth teams, with their academies, and with their approaches to coaching. England's success in future competitions will depend on a balanced and diverse approach much as a successful economy depends on the diverse skills of our own people alongside those brought in from around the world. In football as in our own lives foreigners bring much more to our country then they take away.