Why don’t more English players play in Europe’s top leagues?

Listen to Episode 4 (published 6th November) of The Hit Row Z Podcast – now on iTunes – subscribe and share!

“We can’t compete.”

“There’s too many overseas players in the Premier League.”

“When will we start prioritising the development of young English talent?”

We have all heard these arguments. I recently wrote an article exploring some of them. And there is no doubt that the results of the recent BBC study examining the proportion of English players playing in the Premier League (just 32%, and lower than other European leagues) is initially alarming for the prospects of developing English players in the future. 

But what if the genuine issue constraining the development of English talent was the other side of this equation – not the large amount of foreign talent in the English game, but the lack of English talent in foreign leagues? If English players are somehow limited to only playing in one top division in Europe, and if that top division is becoming ever more competitive on a global scale, then an influx of foreign talent is not the only big challenge to the future of English football.

The state of play – how many English players are competing overseas?

Many of the great English talents across the last three decades have lit up not just the domestic top flight, but also the great stadia of Germany, France, Spain and Italy. Throughout the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s, the likes of Mark Hateley, Glenn Hoddle, Paul Gascoigne, and Michael Owen all left England to experience the game in another country, albeit with differing levels of success.

But what do the numbers tell us about the situation today? In headline terms, there are currently roughly over 300 English players playing in non-domestic leagues across the world. This compares with nearly 800 French players and over 400 Spanish players currently playing overseas.

But although these headline numbers indicate we may have proportionately fewer professionals playing in foreign leagues than other major footballing countries, they fail to illustrate the real issue. Of the 300+ English players playing in non-domestic leagues, the majority compete not in the elite leagues of Europe or South America, but rather in the Welsh Premier League, the Scottish Premier League, and the New Zealand Premier League. 

Now that David Beckham has retired, there is currently only one English player playing in either the Spanish, French, Italian or German Premier Leagues – Michael Mancienne of Hamburger SV. By contrast, according to TransferMarkt.co.uk, 70 French, 52 Spanish, 24 German, and 20 Italian  players are currently plying their trade in one of the big four top European divisions outside of their domestic league. 

And unlike in the past, when the likes of Paul Ince, Gary Lineker and Chris Waddle competed in some of Europe’s top leagues, those English players who have made the move to a top European League in recent years hardly represent the best the English game has to offer. Leaving Beckham to one side, the last Englishmen to grace Serie A and La Liga were Jay Bothroyd and Jermaine Pennant respectively.

Why does this matter?

This reluctance to travel from modern English footballers compared to their predecessors, and to an even greater extent their French, German, Spanish and Italian counterparts, is just as big a concern for the future of English football as the influx of overseas talent to the Premier League.

If English players are being crowded out, but they are not able or willing to play in any of the other top four leagues in Europe, then they are limiting their prospects of playing top flight football to earning a spot at one of just 20 clubs, as opposed to close to 100 teams across the continent. And it only gets worse for English players looking to compete in the Champions League, where a reluctance to move overseas means an English player will more than likely need to play for one of only five or six sides.

Because Spanish, French, Italian and German players are more able, or more willing, to move overseas to compete, world stars like Mesut Ozil, high quality but second tier players like Javi Garcia, and young, up and coming stars like David De Gea face no such restrictions, and have a greater number of options open to them when planning their career.

Most fundamentally, if globalisation is happening, if football is now a truly global game, and if the English Premier League is the most globally successful league, but English players themselves refuse, or are not equipped, to take a full part in the global labour market, they will inevitably become increasingly peripheral figures in the game. This will have major consequences for the England national side.

What is causing this reluctance to play overseas?

So, what are some of the main factors driving the increased reluctance on behalf of English players to play overseas?

First, the financial, commercial and cultural pull of the Premier League is enormous. Wages are, on average, higher in the English Premier League compared to any of other major European footballing nation – with Premier League clubs spending a total of  £2bn in 2011/12 according to the 2013 Deloitte Review of Football Finance. This is virtually double the figure spent in France, Spain, Germany or Italy during the same season.

In addition, the Premier League is the most high profile, and watched league in the world. According to the official website, the Premier League is broadcast in over 200 territories around the world, with a TV audience of around 5bn. This, together with the financial incentive, is clearly a major driver for the influx of foreign talent to the English game.

But in general terms, it also means English players are unlikely to be financially incentivised to move countries themselves, even if they aren’t playing every week. Likewise, foreign clubs may not be able to afford to match the high transfer fee and wage levels that the cash rich Premier League drives, so they may not even go looking for new recruits in England at all.

Second, the Premier League has not just seen an influx of foreign players over the last two decades, but foreign managers and coaches too. If one possible motivation for English players to move overseas is to gain new experiences of different football cultures, then many may feel that they no longer need to travel overseas to do so.

For example, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Kieran Gibbs have been exposed to alternative styles of play, top foreign players, new coaching methods and training techniques simply by playing at Arsenal, under French coach Arsene Wenger, and playing alongside Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and now, Mesut Ozil. And it isn’t just Arsenal – most Premier League clubs look across the globe to source the best playing and coaching talent, and two of the last four England national managers have hailed from overseas.

Third, there may be a reluctance on behalf of English players to leave the UK and play in countries where the culture is significantly different, and where English is not the main language spoken. As we have seen, the majority of the 300+ English players playing overseas are competing in countries where English is the primary language – Scotland, Wales and New Zealand.

In addition, there may be specific cultural barriers that reduce the likelihood of English players playing in Southern Europe. The country where English is not the first language spoken with the largest concentration of English players competing in its top league is Iceland. Given Scandanavian leagues are also not far behind, this appears to indicate that they find it easier to play in these leagues, rather than the Mediterranean leagues of Italy or Spain.

However, this does not explain why so few English players have played in a northern European country like Germany (only 7 English players have ever played in the Bundesliga), or why many more English players did play in Italy during the 1990s.

Of course, although in this author’s view highly unlikely, it may also be that English players are simply of a lower quality, on the whole, than their French, Spanish, Italian and German counterparts, and so are less appealing for foreign clubs to sign.

Conclusions

Fewer English players than at any time in recent memory are currently playing in major European leagues outside of England, at a time when the proportion of minutes played in the English top flight by English players is falling. This poses a significant threat to the future of the England national side, as it means that fewer English players are playing top level football at home, and overseas.

The financial and commercial pull of the English Premier League is not going to wane anytime soon, and as such, it will remain the most appealing league for players of all abilities and nationalities to play in for some time to come. One concept which could be worthy of more attention is that being pursued by the Glenn Hoddle Academy, which aims to give English players who have been released from their contracts a second chance of making it in the professional game, albeit overseas.

Whatever the solution, unless more English players are able and willing to consider playing in other top flights across Europe, their chances of experiencing, flourishing and winning in top flight football and major European competitions will continue to diminish.

Listen to Episode 4 (published 6th November) of The Hit Row Z Podcast – now on iTunes – subscribe and share!

Comments

  1. Steven Watson says:

    I’d argue language alone can explain your problem of players going to Scandinavia and Iceland but not Germany. English language teaching in Scandinavia is terrifyingly good. You could live in Norway and Sweden and never bother to stop speaking English if you so felt. Not speaking German in Germany however would definitely leave you screwed.

    • Hi Steven,

      I’m sure you are right to an extent on this. I think there are certain similarities and a shared history in terms of football culture too. Just look at the current England boss, and his coaching history. He’s credited with revolutionising the game in Sweden!

      Ben

  2. 2 main reasons for me:

    1) the money on offer to be made for am average premier league player is much higher than other leagues. If you think clubs like Stoke can pay an average player £40,000 per week, or a decent player like Crouch upwards of £60,000 a week, why would you want to go to Spain and play for Osasuna for not even half that?

    2) the strength and quality, and wages on offer is comparable with the lower reaches of any other top European leagues. I believe the pyramid in Britain, down to the Conference is seen as a secure environment for most players as they know progression up to the EPL from the bottom, while relatively rare, is possible as seen by many in the last. Think lambert, earnshaw, holt to name but a few…

    • If you looked at the number of English players playing Serie A during the ’90s, when that was very much the play to be and where most of the money was, there were a few English players there (Gazza, Ince, Platt), but not a huge amount. Although of course finance here is a big factor, I believe there is a general reluctance for English players to move abroad, due to the aforementioned language problem. However, I also think there is a fear that if they do move abroad, then they will be forgotten about. I remember Matt Derbyshire leaving Blackburn as a reasonably promising player to go to Olympiakos, and people seemed to view that as him being a failure, rather than testing himself. He had been in the u21s before he left, and when he came back, his reputation was virtually non-existent. Scott Carson, not a great keeper to be fair but has England caps, has gone to Turkey and for all I know has vanished off the face of the Earth. English players of a decent level are scared that if they go abroad, they will be forgotten about, that nobody will take seriously what they do abroad, and that only what they do in England actually matters in the grand scheme of things. Remember the grief Hargreaves used to get for playing for Bayern while getting picked for England? People would ask “how does the manager even know if he’s any good?”.

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