Has the growing proportion of foreign players in the Premier League damaged the England team? The Case for the Defence

If any point of view has been doing the rounds for far, far too long it’s the one that says the growing proportion of foreign players in the premier league is bad the England national team. Current England manager Roy Hodgson and his assistant Gary Neville being  just two of the latest in a long line of commentators and insiders to echo this particular age old argument  The slight difference is that when its coming from someone as cosmopolitan as Hodgson, whose CV includes lengthy spells coaching outside the UK, taking in both Inter Milan and the Swiss national side,  it’s tempting to sit up and take notice, but for all that I don’t mind saying that Roy and Gary are both wrong,and here is why…..

Exhibit A for the defence: the historic performance of the England team. If the hypothesis that increasing numbers of foreign players has a detrimental effect on the England side is correct then we should be able to see some decline in the England teams fortunes relative to the increase in the number of foreign players in the premier league, but if we take a look at FIFA’s rankings, there does not appear to have been any decline at all.


As we can, in terms of the FIFA ranking  England’s position has, if anything, steadily improved throughout the Premier League era. England are in fact doing better, at least according to this measure, but even if you are inclined to think FIFA rankings are something you wouldn’t normally trouble a mucky posterior with then put it this way – England failed to qualify for the 1984 European Championships, or USA ’94 whilst their performance at Euro ’88 was hardly a classic. All these were at a time when the proportion of foreign players in the top-flight was minuscule.

Looking more closely at Hodgson and Neville’s comments the main strand of the argument  is that the number of foreign players in the Premier league  – over two thirds according to Hodgson – has been reducing the talent pool of ‘home-grown’ players who can be selected for England. Putting this into numbers the blog The Stiles Council points out that

On April 6th, 7th and 8th, the last full weekend programme in the Premier League, just 73 of the 220 players who started matches were English. Arsenal and Fulham did not start with a single Englishman in their sides; Wigan Athletic did.

The question though is how many players do you really need? An England team is made up of eleven starting players, plus a maximum of three playing substitutes. Even if all 220 players were eligible for England, the question has to be; how many of these would be serious contenders, would it be any more than 73? As a rough guide, in his tenure as England manager, lasting around four years, Fabio Capello selected 77 players and played 63 of them. Of these only 25 made ten or more appearances with just seven of these players making over twenty appearances whilst 17 of the 63 made no more than two appearances under Capello.

The long tail; Player appearances under Capello show a relatively small core of the England team with a small number of players making the most appearances
The long tail; Player appearances under Capello show a relatively small core of the England team with a small number of players making the most appearances

What this suggests is that  the core of an England team is therefore relatively small over a period of time with a large number of players on the fringes. It is therefore doubtful that the proportion of foreign players in the premier league is anywhere near impinging on the pool of talent from which the core of the England team is drawn and as Gary Neville himself conceded the top players like Beckham and Scholes “would have stood out in any environment.”

For Neville though the issue is not about these top players, but the ones just below them in the pecking order, with him posing the question

“But what about players like me? Players like my brother, Phil, or Nicky Butt?”

The argument here is that foreign players are reducing opportunities for some domestic players to develop, potentially into future England players.  But is this all down to foreign players, and does starting your career outside the Premier League prevent you from playing for England? After all former England captain Stuart Pearce spent several years at the beginning of his career, in the late 1970s and early 1980s – a time when there were very few foreign players in the Premier League, playing  for non-league Wealdstone whilst holding down a job as an electrician before being eventually being spotted and  picked up by Coventry City.

But, to go even further the true absurdity of the argument that the rise in the proportion of foreign players in the Premiership is damaging to the England national team is the reality that it is actually enhancing the England side. There are few who would argue against the assertion that today’s foreign players have with their talent enabled the Premier League to become one of the worlds pre-eminent leagues, a point not lost on Neville. Like the Singaporean economy the Premier league functions by paying top wages to attract top-talent which in turn drives the whole system forward. Those 73 players who are eligible for England are week-in week-out playing alongside and testing themselves against the best the world has to offer which will inevitably result in them becoming better players. The money brought in from Premier Leagues inexorable rise – including a large chunk from overseas broadcasting rights – also contributing to player development with money spent on upgrading training facilities as well as paying for the best coaches, sports scientists, psychologists, nutritionists and physiotherapists that money can buy.

And it’s mainly home-grown youngsters who benefit from any funds spent on youth development. For individual players and their families moving overseas at a tender age, far from their support-networks, when the odds of success are incredibly low is a risky business.  It is therefore unsurprisingly mainly home-grown players who make up Premier League clubs development squads and youth sides. One potentially valid point is that not enough is spent on player development, instead it is  being funneled into first-team wages, but were there fewer foreign players then there would invariably be a decline in the standard of football which would lead to a spiral of lower revenues and though possibly a higher proportion, a lower total spend on player development.

While Neville might look on enviously at the Spanish top-flight with it’s 63% Spanish players there is no evidence to suggest success of a national team is not in any way correlated – in fact the number of foreign players in a league is a measure of that leagues health; with leagues such as the Premier League, Serie A, Ligue 1, and Bundesliga all boasting a proportion of foreign players in excess of 40%. By contrast the leagues with the lowest proportions include Iceland, Albania, Finland, Slovenia and Wales.


The argument made by Hodgson and Neville is also essentially a pointless one. Any barriers, or quotas imposed in the name of enhancing England team would be misguided and damaging. The Premier League has flourished because of a removal of restrictions. Free movement of labour has enabled the League to attract the cream of the worlds playing and coaching talent, in turn bringing success and the financial rewards which come with it. Attempting to even partially reverse this process would send the league into decline and it is this which would be detrimental for the England team.


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