England, a multi-cultural society awash with people travelling to every corner of the globe. From white-washed sandy shores in the Caribbean to adrenaline inspired Oceanic adventures, as a nation we are adept at spreading our influence around the world and discovering what it has to offer.
However, when it comes to football, it’s something of a lost tradition. Is it that England, father to the sport, has lost its global dominance on football? With bowing out early in major competitions becoming the norm, is it the lack of experience in other countries which is leaving our international players handicapped?
England currently have 206 natives trying their luck across the border but if we exclude the ‘home nations’, only 43 have ventured further. Australia and USA predictably harbour several compatriots, leaving just 26 Englishmen in foreign speaking countries. To put that in perspective, there are 31 French players alone in England. Could it be that we lack linguistically to prove successful elsewhere? A survey performed during the 2014 European Day of Languages by the European Commission revealed that England is the most widely spoken language with 38% of Europeans fluent in it, the next most common tongue is French with just 12% confident to converse in the language of love.
So we know that other countries are committed to studying our dialect, but why don’t we return the honour? From the same survey, 61% of UK residents can only speak their home language, leaving us as the third worst international conversationalists in Europe. On the contrary, we are frequently classed as having a superior education system to our European counterparts, so the ability is there for us to be more diverse, we just seem not to bother.
Yet we need to branch out, let our seeds drop and blossom on foreign soil for the sake of progress, if not that then to at least make some mark on the universal game. England are slowly sliding down in status and presence in the footballing scene, sitting 14th in FIFA’s global rankings and 2 places behind neighbours Wales.
A batch of A-listers have gone to America in recent years to leech off pay cheques and live the Los Angeles life, with Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard and David Beckham all featuring for LA Galaxy during their mid-life crises. Ignoring the out of season stock shipped across the Atlantic though, Joe Hart may have inadvertently set the trend for established players in their prime to look to Europe and beyond for first team action, after making headway in Torino. Ravel Morrison may object following his lacklustre performances for Lazio in past seasons but it may still plant the seed that success is possible across the border.
Aside from Hart, who may have been reluctant to relinquish the no. 1 sky blue jersey of Manchester, there simply isn’t enough prized players maturing outside the English football system.
There are certainly a few youngsters emboldened enough to try it out abroad, Jack Harrison in the MLS being one of the most effective. Prior to joining New York City FC (NYC FC) in 2016, the 20-year-old spent 7 years in the Manchester United academy before moving to Massachusetts as a 14 year and excelling in college soccer. His entrance to the MLS was slightly scampered by exasperated contract negotiations and injury scares, but once he arrived he certainly did it in style. After 2016, Harrison was named 2nd best player under the age of 24 in the MLS and ranked #1 overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft, whatever that means. With 4 goals and 7 assists in 23 appearances and recent praise from former teammate and fellow Brit Frank Lampard, Jack Harrison is an example to any aspiring local footballers looking to seize opportunities wherever they may be, and is also probably our best player in a foreign league.
Sticking with youth, the Eredivisie, mecca of tactical tiki-taka, is often housing young homegrown players loaned out by England’s elite, Chelsea being one club renowned for utilising Dutch clubs (or for the sake of accuracy, club). Iceland can also lay claim to a spattering of former academy prospects, for example, Sam Hewson and Sam Tillen who currently play for Icelandic champions FH are former Manchester United and Chelsea prodigies respectively.
Yet these examples are players who are young, trying to get a game in anywhere possible, most of them having moved away under compulsory terms by their owners. The questions still lies, apart from a handful of under-23’s, why are our most prolific performers’ not undertaking projects in foreign lands? As established, the language barrier is a possibility but stems from our innate laziness and arrogance as a nation, we seem to be creating our own demise and cannot hold it accountable for lack of progress. So what about the argument of a cultural divide?
In short, I’m not buying it. The western world is a self-reproducing, carbon copy of itself. I often argue with my other half about not going to Europe as it’s the same as home, rows of infamous coffee brands accompanied by one of several known supermarkets, the odd conventional high street retailer round the corner. We are comfortable in the confines of the western world, and that goes a lot further than my own holidays.
For example, Liverpool’s Andre Wisdom is enjoying a loan for FC Red Bull Salzburg in Austria, Joleon Lescott recently, and briefly, showed his face in Greece and Luke Steele, former Manchester United, West Bromwich Albion and Barnsley keeper, was a regular for 20-time Greek champions Panathinaikos before being dropped earlier this season. Players can and do go to the more recognized of our neighbours and have varying degrees of success, most likely due to their similar surroundings.
Take Matt Derbyshire for example, the prolific marksman of the Cypriot First Division has scored 20 goals in 27 appearances for Omonia Nicosia. Despite Cyprus being reputable for holiday makers thanks to how comparable it is with English life, Matt never quite made it in England. With spells at several clubs such as Blackburn, Birmingham, Nottingham Forrest and Rotherham, the latter where he enjoyed his most successful spell scoring 18 in 2 seasons, Matt just couldn’t get past a well organised defence. His decision to move to Cyprus, arbitrary or not, and the success that followed shows to other players that they can prosper abroad, which will not only develop the influence we have on foreign leagues but may revitalise their own career.
Take Jay Bothroyd for example, at 34 years of age you would think offers for the former Premier League strike would be thin, yet he secured a move to Thailand shortly followed by a switch to Jubilo Iwata in the J2 League, Japan’s second tier. Bothroyd was top scorer that season, aiding his side in their promotion charge and securing a second season at the club where he now has 33 goals in 51 appearances in Japanese premier level.
This could be another case of uninspired, inferior leagues allowing below-par players to flourish, however I like my glass half full and see it as another avenue for lower league or out-of-favour players to consider throughout their career and quest to the top.
So the opportunities are there, a few aspiring individuals have been able to make it abroad but their following is meek. With no real excuse coming from language or culture hindrances, the only explanation available for our absence must be financial. It’s the sad truth of our time that the amount of zeroes in a bank account outweighs the invaluable and priceless emotions of passion, pride and aspiration. Our transition into a sporting financial tower may have elevated the English Football League to new heights but certainly hasn’t done any favours to our international prospects. Even commensurate countries such as Spain and its La Liga cannot compete, with their total annual salary half of the Premier League’s.
As an international team, we often look overshadowed by Europe’s grand slam winners, outclassed and embarrassed by South America’s heavyweights and far too often, ignominy by small timers.
Whether it’s for development or respite, in light of opportunity or ructions, English players should breathe the deep, rich footballing air of our neighbouring countries and turn a blind eye to enticing pay packets, if not for their own sake, then for the Three Lions’.