Football and the Benefits of Immigration
The eminent economist Jonathan Portes, Director of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, likes to cite two examples in attempting to convince audiences of the merits of free movement of labour. The first is his own field – economics – where collaboration between academics trained within country traditions has produced the field’s most innovative work, and seen real international powerhouses established in the UK, the USA and Canada.
His second example is the world of post-Bosman professional football. This is, thinks Portes, an infinitely better place for the impact of that landmark, shackle-loosening judgement in the mid-90s. The cross-breeding of nationalities in European leagues has encouraged them to flourish, and seen a heightened competition both within and across borders and, crucially, an overall improvement in both the quality and saleability of the product.
His first point is, perhaps, moot. However, if we ignore external pressures, the second is unquestionably correct – the English Premier League has benefitted hugely from the legion talents from Spain, Italy, France and further afield. Many of the players so closely associated with the brand – from Cantona, through Zola, Drogba and Henry, are here in large part thanks to John-Marc Bosman.
So what? You’re all thinking. How does the viability and credibility of the Premier League brand affect me as a Walsall supporter, a Wigan Athletic season ticket holder or a Plymouth Argyle fanatic?
Ask Roger Boli. Or Zigor Aranalde. Or Roberto Martínez. Or Isidro Díaz. Or Roman Larrieu. Or Krisztián Timár. All of whom landed on our shores as a direct result of the Bosman ruling.
Portes’ theory of free movement’s impact on quality is perhaps even more stark in the Football League where fans of an 80s vintage were bred on a hue of blood and thunder football which wouldn’t pass muster in the local parks of today. This isn’t to say that pockets of tactical decrepitude don’t exist in the lower reaches of the football pyramid, but they’re altogether rarer and there seems to be a sufficient causal link in terms of timing to suggest that the cumulative influx of players from more rarefied footballing enclaves has had a stark impact.
To pick a couple of examples from those above – Aranalde played at left back, most successfully for Walsall and Carlisle United. He was a begloved musketeer who specialised in epee point thrusts from his defensive berth – his talents would seem run of the mill today, as every full back from Preston to Ipswich busts their lungs to join the attack. But in 2000, when the 27 year old Aranalde first washed up at the Bescot Stadium, marauding left backs were only seen in the rarefied air of the World Cup; he brought an echo of Thuram and Lizarazu to the Black Country.
Roberto Martínez’s impact on the English game is still keenly felt, as he sets about transforming David Moyes’ functional Everton unit into a thrusting, pressing tiki-taka monster. When he joined Wigan in 1995 a lower league defensive midfielder was chiefly an ill-starred bludgeon, for breaking shin pads and the will of opponents. Yet the Spaniard thrived as a Division Three ‘regista’, scoring 23 goals in 6 seasons and twice being chosen by his peers in their team of the season. It’s very rare nowadays for a side even in Leagues 1 and 2 to play without a ‘ball rotator’ at the base of their midfield – and Martínez was the first.
This is only half the story too. Migration of overseas players into the higher echelons of the English game has had an enormous ‘supply side’ impact on the quality of football played at lower levels. The term ‘supply side’ has dirty connotations thanks to its association with George W Bush’s ‘trickle down’ tax policy from the 2000s. But in footballing terms it’s quite different.
The displacement of top level players by the Drogbas, Henrys and Lamelas of our world can have a huge positive impact on lower league football. Witness the upturn in fortunes at League One Swindon Town, where a clutch of young players from Tottenham Hotspur have helped Mark Cooper, an unpopular choice of gaffer in Wiltshire, make a solid start.
Swindon’s case is a rarity, but the impact can be seen every Saturday in almost every single Football League fixture as loanees and discarded youngsters from football’s top table notch goals and produce match saving tackles the land over.
To pick on just one example, Carlisle United have benefitted from the talents of Tim Krul, James Chester, Tom Taiwo, Danny Graham, Jordan Cook, Liam Noble, Chris Chantler and Conor Townsend in recent seasons – all either on loan, or signed, from Premier League clubs. Each has had a huge positive impact on the quality of the team and lends weight to the argument that migration in football doesn’t just improve quality for those at the top but breeds lasting, structural improvement.
Which brings us to the problem, the externality (to use economics parlance), that calls this feast for all into question – the England football team. It isn’t exactly a new argument to blame the lacklustre performances of the national side on the influx of foreign recruits, though recent events and announcements, chief amongst the Greg Dyke’s FA Commission, have given new impetus to this knottiest of footballing problems.
The argument may be as old as the Bosman judgement at least, but the proposed solutions have been somewhat different this time round. Most notable has been the idea that Premier League ‘B’ teams might take a place in the lower reaches of the Football League in order to prime their academy graduates for real world football. The argument goes that this works for the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich, so it should be transplanted to the UK.
This is typical of English football, an institution utterly ignorant of its own idiosyncratic heritage, in its sheer ignorance of the differences between the game on these shores and that overseas. Whilst our clubs and our players have much to learn, and have learnt much, from those who’ve come here to ply their trade, that’s no reason for a full system transplant to be successful.
Spain, for example, has enormous structural issues with its league structure – Barcelona and Real Madrid play out their own mini-league year on year and the weighting of funding is the real reason for the success of Barcelona, its B team and, to an extent, the world leading La Masia facility. Germany’s lower league footballing heritage has stronger roots than those in Iberia, but its league structure is only a little over 50 years old and club ‘B’ teams have been part of it from day one.
Those in favour have been quick to point out that this won’t be the end of professional football in Gillingham or Newport, but have couched this amongst patrician warnings that Football League clubs need to pull their weight in the development of top level players.
The issue here is that there is no incentive for them to do so – the corrosive effects of the Elite Player Performance Plan have already taken their grip on the smaller clubs, with the flight of talent to top level academies continuing apace. There’s no quid pro-quo, no incentive for lower league clubs to take up the slack for the Premier League’s inability to fashion English starlets.
If we accept that the migration of foreign players to the UK is a de facto ‘good’ thing, then surely we must accept that all clubs should share the spoils? Or else we should make it worth Carlisle United’s while to persist with their raw, talented but mistake prone England under 19 right back Brad Potts over French World Cup star Pascal Chimbonda. The current rhetoric of neither/nor is serving nobody’s interest and ignores the potential benefits that a player like Potts garners from playing in the same team as a former PL Team of the Year nominee.
The suggestion that migration to the lower leagues suppresses player development also ignores facts. Consider this list – Rickie Lambert, Phil Jagielka, Kyle Walker, Adam Lallana, Andros Townsend, John Ruddy, Ravel Morrison, Jack Butland, Jake Livermore, Tom Huddlestone. Just a handful of players with strong Football League experience who’ve been in or around the England squad within the past 24 months. The fact that Chelsea’s academy has yet to produce a single successful graduate is their own problem, not the Football League’s. Come next year though, when UEFA’s ridiculous meddling closes the emergency loan window, such successes may become rarer still.
The Times journalist Gab Marcotti made a good fist of suggesting a solution in a recent column for ‘The Game’. He was perhaps right to suggest that there are a lot of ‘average’ foreign players in the Football League (though, again, this depends on your definition and we mustn’t define by PL standards) and his ‘solution’ at least goes some way to encourage better behaviours. He proposes that a portion of Football League solidarity payments be linked to fielding of England eligible players under the age of 24; the fewer you field, the lower your take.
This is a neat idea, but it still has problems – again it’s a disincentive, a ‘take’ from the Football League in the same way that EPPP and removal of the loan window are ‘takes’. It doesn’t reward a positive behaviour, merely punishes a negative one. It may well be that such a scheme would succeed in encouraging change, but when the rewards of the Premier League are in sight, a degree of short term ‘pain’ is probably palatable for many.
A scheme which rewards clubs ‘over and above’ current payments might work, but this probably couldn’t be brought into being until such time of the next PL/Football League financial settlement. If designed to take a portion of the ‘pot’ from those where the rewards of playing foreign players is highest – i.e. the Premier League and Championship – and use this to incentivise Leagues One and Two to go ‘grassroots first’, this could have a genuinely positive impact.
Until such time Football League fans should have no qualms cheering the Frenchman, Spaniards, Ivorians and Ghanaians turning on the style on Saturday, or in celebrating those who form the rhythmic, beating heart of its recent heritage. And to do so safe in the knowledge that the wiles of the England team next summer in Brazil, will have next to nothing to do with the fact that their Slovakian centre-half or Portuguese winger took home the Player of the Year gong.