Sunday, 17 August 2014

Foreign Footballers Are Like Foreign Foods – They Benefit Us At Home

England captain Steven Gerrard thinks reducing the number of foreign players in the Premier League will make the league better, and enhance the quality of our international team. Rio Ferdinand thinks the same. Greg Dyke is right on board with this, claiming that having a maximum of two non-European Union players will bolster home talent. I had a few choice words to say about it in this blog here.

Now it emerges this week that the Adam Smith Institute has unsurprisingly found what we suspected all along, that:

1) There is no link between native play time in the Premier League and performance of English national team

2) There is no link between amount of minutes played by Englishmen ten years ago and performance today

3) There is no strong link between foreign players and Premier League quality

I have a few more comments to make on this issue. If people involved in football understood more about economics they would know even without doing much research that diversity into the market improves the market. Anywhere you look, you find that competition improves goods and services, in terms of quality, prices, and choices available. A country that trades globally performs better than a country that only trades within its own borders. A university that invites students from all over the world does better than one that constrains entry to one country. The examples are endless. But here’s the key point in analogy to football – extending the quality through diversity doesn’t just improve the system overall, it improves the home grown participants too.

Let’s take food as an analogy that explains why it’s the same for football. A few decades ago in England there was almost no foreign cuisine. If you walked into the city centre your choices would be limited to British food; roast dinners, fish and chips, pies, fry-ups, bread, pastries and stewed meats and broths. In the modern day, take a walk into a busy city in the UK and you’ll find your dining options are much more plentiful. You could enjoy all those British options, but in addition your choices extend to a meal from places as diverse as China, India, Spain, Italy, France, America, Bangladesh, Australia, Japan, Greece, Mexico, Malaysia, Thailand, Turkey, and if you are in a very cosmopolitan city, African and the Caribbean too. 

If you are a provider of British cuisine you currently have to compete against all of the aforementioned nationalities. The couple who would have had a Sunday roast decades ago now could have a Mexican fajita or a Greek lamb moussaka for their Sunday lunch. The chaps who used to leave the pub and get fish & chips on the way home could now acquire any number of takeaways – pizza, Indian, Chinese, kebab or McDonald’s, to name but a few. A pub or restaurant that serves a mediocre Sunday roast, and a fish and chip shop that serves horrible fish and chips, will lose custom to their foreign counterparts, or to other providers of better English cuisine.

That’s why more foreign food is good for British food too. The importing of foreign cuisine puts intense pressure on the quality of British cuisine, and makes it better. The same goes for football players. 30 or 40 years ago UK players pretty much made up the entire league’s quota of players. If you were a good English player you had a fair chance of being picked for your club because your competition would have been only other players from the UK. Nowadays, a good quality English player has to compete with talented players from the rest of Europe and South America, all looking to earn their living playing in (usually) England, Spain or Italy.

Just as with cuisine, having foreign players in the English league improves both the quality of the league and the quality of the performers, including British players. In recent times, and just taking into account Englishmen, it takes players as good as the likes of Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, David Beckham, Ashley Cole, Gary Neville and Alan Shearer to make it in teams predominated by foreigners. Not only are they all world class players who did a lot to contribute to the successes of their clubs, their talent would have been enhanced by being in an environment in which they competing for places alongside world class foreign players. If they’d have been competing only against other UK players I’m certain that neither they, nor the clubs for whom they play(ed), would have had anything like the same talent or success.

England has done poorly at international level (since 1966) not because we lacked good players, but because other teams had better players. As good as Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and Ashley Cole were for their clubs week-in week-out, it’s just simply the case that due to a mixture of being outperformed, and perhaps lacking a bit of luck, other nations (like Spain, Brazil, France, Germany and Italy) had technically better players, and did better in the international competitions. Besides, apart from one or two disastrous campaigns, we haven’t been a million miles short of another trophy, as those who can remember Italia 90 and Euro 96 could testify. Plus, we only lost on penalties in several of the other tournaments (France 98, Portugal 04, Germany 06, Poland/Ukraine 2012). Apart from this World Cup just gone, we’ve had good enough players to excite the fans’ hopes and expectations, even if they’ve soon turned to disappointment. 

But one thing’s for sure, as the Adam Smith Institute’s research has shown us, reducing foreign players will not make all this better, and turn us into world-beaters like we were in 1966 – it will diminish the quality of the overall English League, and it will enable us to produce fewer high quality English players for our international team.

* Photo courtesty of