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Foreign imports aren’t damaging England’s chances

Country’s sporting talent spread too thinly

England manager Roy Hodgson has promised that the national side will qualify for Euro 2016 ahead of their qualifier versus Switzerland, while also appearing to get his excuses in early if they don’t: too many foreign players in the Premier League.

Prompted by Danny Welbeck’s move from Manchester United to Arsenal and Tom Cleverley’s season-long loan to Aston Villa, Hodgson bemoaned the influx of players from abroad, claiming that it limits the opportunities available to homegrown talent and stunts their development.

But while all the foreigners coming over here and taking our first-team places might be a popular explanation for England’s perennial failures, it’s not one that stands up to scrutiny. An analysis published in August by the Adam Smith Institute, an economic thinktank, should bury the idea for good.

The institute compared national team performance, as measured by a country’s FIFA ranking, with the minutes played by ‘native’ players in that country’s top league. Looking at data for England, Germany, Italy and Spain, they found that those four countries not only don’t perform any better in international competition when homegrown players get more time on the pitch at club level — they actually do slightly worse.

They also delved deeper into the data to investigate the possibility of a delayed effect, in which a higher number of foreign players in the league at one point in time leads to a decline in the national team’s performance in the future. However no link was found between England’s performance at any given stage and English players’ time on the pitch in the Premier League five or ten years previously.

On the other hand, they did discover that having more foreign players present tends to make domestic leagues stronger — based on their UEFA coefficient. So while any moves to place limits on overseas players may be popular, they would do nothing to help the England setup but would hurt the Premier League.

So if England’s woes aren’t down to imported overseas talent preventing the development of more of our own world-class players, then what is it? The report does acknowledge that the amount of playing time given to English players aged 18-21 may still be a factor, and proper research into that aspect is needed, but also tentatively offers an intriguing possibility.

Unlike in many other countries, and despite being our putative national game, football, it suggests, has to compete with a host of other sports at which England is quite good. Instead of being concentrated into a small number of specific disciplines, general sporting aptitude is spread too thinly. Perhaps, instead of lamenting the presence of all those foreign footballers, Hodgson should blame his troubles on Englishmen that choose rugby and cricket.

Image: England play Sweden in 2011. Credit: Philosophy Football, reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.

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