By Philip Benton
A few weeks into another domestic football season, arguably set to be the most exciting Premier League season yet, and as we approach our first international break, I’ve been reflecting on what was another dismal World Cup campaign for the English national team and whether a fundamental reason for it could partly be down to the fact I had to Google translate the title of this article.
The ‘English’ Premier League
There’s been a long-running debate that the influx of foreign players in the Premier League since the early 2000s has had a detrimental effect on bringing through talented young English players which are able to represent their country at the highest level.
The English Premier League can boast a host of foreign talents to have graced football pitches up and down the country, from Eric Cantona to Cristano Ronaldo or Dennis Bergkamp to Gianfranco Zola – the list is endless. But how many English players have made the reverse trip? Off the top of my head, David Beckham, Paul Ince and Steve McManaman are one of very few English players to have been successful plying their trade abroad.
Why do so few English players try and emulate such illustrious footsteps? Well, money could be a factor – the English Premier League is the richest league in the world having handed out £1.5 billion in prize money last season. Tom Ince, son of Paul, turned down the opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps by opting for Hull City in the summer over Inter Milan. Perhaps the lure of living in the 2017 UK City of Culture was too good to pass up… or perhaps it was the reported £40,000 weekly salary being offered.
Ashley Cole, having recently switched to Italian club AS Roma, believes English players are scared of playing abroad and leaving their comfort zone. Why is it that foreign players are quite happy to leave their home countries and move to England but not the other way around?
Following the EU Model
In previous TLE articles, Drew Nicol and Valentina Magri have both brought up the issue of teaching languages in English schools and how little it is currently being encouraged. Valentina picks up on the Prime Minister’s vision of British children learning Mandarin as standard practice in our education system, which is great, but how this would work in reality is a mystery considering the inferior quality of European languages currently being taught in this country.
In the EU, English is taught as the main foreign language in nearly all member states with the starting age being lowered in many cases with now over 90% of secondary school students learning English. The European Commission conducted a report in 2012 into the teaching of foreign languages in its member states and found most pupils were being taught between 6-9 years old (and often two or more languages at a time), which is significantly earlier than the age being taught in 2004/5 when the report was last conducted.
The change is particularly noticeable in Spain, where the standard of English has improved notably at school-level and coincided with an interesting shift in the careers of Spanish footballers. At the start of this century, Spain were the classic underachievers notorious for having a talented team which never quite fulfilled their potential. The players rarely ventured outside of La Liga (thought of as the best in the world) and just one player in their 2002 World Cup squad played in a foreign league. Sound familiar?
Although Italy won the World Cup in 2006 with an entire squad made up from their domestic league and Spain following suit in 2010 with just three players based abroad, both nationalities feature far more regularly in the English Premier League now than a decade ago. In fact, during the 2004/5 season there were just four Spaniards plying their trade in the Premier League, compared to the twenty five registered at the start of this season.
Migration of English Talent?
Some of England’s young talent could star abroad and benefit hugely from the exposure to a different style of play and mentality which would eventually filter back to the national squad. Think how Adam Lallana could excel in a high-tempo club like Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, Luke Shaw learning the art of Italian defending at Milan or Ross Barkley discovering the meaning of ‘total football’ at Ajax in the Netherlands. Joe Cole, one of the few English players to play abroad, commented how he learnt more about tactics in his single season with French club Lille than he did in his entire career prior.
The English players should follow the example of their current manager Roy Hodgson, having started his management life in Sweden and since managed at club and national level in Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Finland and the United Arab Emirates. As a result, Hodgson is fluent in Norwegian, Swedish, German and Italian as well as having some knowledge of Danish, French and Finnish.
If English schools were to introduce foreign languages into the national curriculum to be valued as importantly as mathematics and science, it could not only help UK-educated students become more competitive on the global jobs market front but it could also in same way play its part in turning around the fortunes of a once great footballing power.