I really thought that the suggestions that there could – or should – be some cap on the number of non-British players/quota of home-grown players, along the lines proposed by Fifa president Sepp Blatter, were just plain daft and would be quickly forgotten. But Sir Alex Ferguson has chipped in, Steve Coppell has added his six-pennyworth, followed by Steve Gerrard (who took the prize for simplistic, incoherent drivel) and now Paul Parker. No doubt there will be others either side of England’s (probable) failure to qualify for Euro 08.
Can they all be wrong? Well, yes. As a lifelong atheist (no, not an agnostic) I don’t have a problem with the idea that a large chunk of society is simply misguided (or to put it another way I disagree with them). And of course there are some vested interests - Ferguson enjoys a dig at his peers, just think where the wages of the best English players will go if there were strict quotas, and Fifa has its own agenda for promoting international over club tournaments – as well as other dissenting voices, most obviously Arsene Wenger.
It would seem that the prospect of England not qualifying for a major tournament (shock horror: I was at Wembley for the Poland game many moons ago, it happened before and no doubt will again) has sparked some navel-gazing. Well, someone’s got to be to blame and the head of Steve McClaren clearly just isn’t enough for some. Of course, if Russia don’t win in Israel and England squeeze through all of this will be forgotten, just like the booing at Charlton after we went 2-0 down against Sheff Wed.
Not long ago many were assuming that this period would be a golden era for the England team, given the array of talent coming through around the turn of the century. If not the 2006 World Cup then Euro 2008 was a realistic target for a trophy. Of course, when England screwed up in the former it was the fault of having a foreign manager (no, I’m not overlooking his poor squad selection). Now we’re probably not even going to qualify for the latter where do we pin the blame? Up goes the shout: something has to be done.
It is a failure; England will probably fail to qualify. But is there really a problem other than that a group of players and a management team have together not been better in a period of time than those of two other countries? And is it just easier to blame a dark external force than to actually examine where we went wrong, in terms of team selection, formation, management, motivation etc? Heaven forbid, if the latter we might actually learn from mistakes rather than waste time and effort on windmills.
I guess it just depends on your priorities. If it is collectively decided that the performance of the England team is the be all and end all then - ignoring for now the practicalities - we could look at keeping English clubs in English ownership, ensuring that club owners bow to the wishes of the England management on all matters (including resting players, postponing games, ensuring that team formations echo that adopted by England), and adopt best corporate practise by bribing when appropriate. Hey, why not prevent non-UK nationals from attending games? After all, their loyalties might not be reliable.
It’s all at best unworkable nonsense and at worst veers towards the disgusting. Of course, some may say, this is going too far, there just needs to be a correction to a situation which has become unbalanced and is in danger of becoming even more warped. Well, that is a matter of opinion. All markets have a tendency to overshoot – and usually to self-correct. Personally I will be disappointed if England don’t qualify, and don’t doubt that it would detract from my enjoyment of the actual tournament if we don’t make it. But there are no divine rights here, let’s just try to do better next time. Much as I’d love to alter the system to ensure that Charlton always won the Champions League (OK, occasionally we wouldn’t win it, just so we didn’t get complacent) others just might object. Same with England.
Equally if someone asks ‘are you in favour of Charlton and other clubs developing local, home-grown talent?’ the answer is of course ‘yes’. There is a special delight in a player coming through the ranks. But if there is a further question ‘do you favour distorting the system to try to achieve this?’ that’s a ‘no’ for me – unless someone can come up with a means which does not have undesirable side-effects. It’s a bit like being canvassed over the phone by The Torygraph: ‘Do you believe that you have a right to defend yourself if attacked by a frenzied, drugs-crazed, axe-wielding lunatic?’ OK, yes. ‘So therefore you believe you have a right to keep sub-machine guns in your house?’)
Basically I’m not convinced that there is a genuine, structural problem with English football, at least not one which could be ‘cured’ by artificial quotas – unless you simply find having ‘our football’ open to overseas investment and influence disturbing. I don’t. Of course an open approach and the massive influx of money and foreign players have implications and effects, not all of which are considered desirable by everyone all of the time. But that’s the nature of change. The art is to try to adapt to make the best use of change. The England manager may find himself having to choose a team from only around 90 Premiership players rather than say 300. Is that so difficult? I don’t think England’s problems have been due to a lack of players; rather it’s been about getting the best out of them.
Also, the top club teams are simply better than national teams, which inevitably devalues internationals (just as gradually national governments are becoming increasingly impotent – a trend which has much further to go). Just learn to live with it.
Why don’t we instead celebrate having one of the most exciting and affluent leagues in the world (albeit one which has suffered a setback due to the temporary absence from the top-flight of it’s greatest club), one in which the best English players come through on merit, rather than a sport that through a mixture of hooliganism, lack of investment, and a blinkered, nationalistic approach was dying on its feet not so long ago? As Wenger questioned, exactly what did the England team achieve during 1970-96?