Stephen King: Football, migration and the blame game

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Having discovered that upwards of 5,000 of the illegal variety appear to be working in the security services, it's perhaps no great surprise that politicians and others are increasingly focusing on immigration. "British jobs for British workers" is the latest mantra from Gordon Brown.

Britain wouldn't be the nation it is without having benefited through the centuries from a steady influx of immigrants. Over the last 100 years, though, as the door has slowly closed on foreigners, the debate about immigration has shifted. The economic arguments mostly in its favour have been put to one side (a shame, perhaps, given Britain's relative economic decline over the last 100 years). Immigration has become primarily a political issue.

This doesn't stop others from commenting on the benefits or otherwise of foreign workers. Here's one observation. "Something has got to happen otherwise there will be more and more foreigners and they will take over."

OK, so I took that remark out of context. Steven Gerrard, Liverpool hero and England midfielder, was talking about the woes of the England football team. He went on to say: "There is a big danger that we stop producing quality young kids because of the amount of foreigners in the game. If foreigners do take over completely, it will affect the national team even worse than maybe it is now." Steve Coppell, erstwhile England midfielder and now manager of Reading FC (one of the poorer Premier League teams) warned: "We're the English Premier League, yet the majority of the teams at the top of the Premier League have few English players. We must protect our identity by having a limited number of non-English players."

For the economic debate on immigration, the English Premier League is a bit of a laboratory. The rational economist might argue that if the England football team continuously underperforms, England should give up on football altogether and concentrate on other national sports where the nation can, in fact, excel. Life, though, isn't like that. The real issue is whether current arrangements in the Premier League – supposedly the richest league in the world – are consistent with the production of a top-performing national team which might, once in a while, win something.

The English football team has had its ups and downs over the years. One of my earliest memories of English football failure was my father's return from Wembley on that fateful October night in 1973 when England were knock-ed out of the World Cup qualifiers by Poland. The manager that evening was Sir Alf Ramsey although, by that stage, only Martin Peters was left from England's earlier world-conquering team.

In the dark days of the 1970s, though, you could hardly blame our sporting failure on a lack of opportunities for English players in the old First Division. They had every opportunity they could possibly wish for. They simply weren't good enough to compete on the world stage (as they went on to prove through their failure to qualify for the 1978 World Cup).

Given these earlier disappointments, is it plausible to argue that the foreign influx into the English game has really undermined the performance of the national team? The most obvious problem with the argument is that, so far, it simply doesn't fit the facts. The first chart shows the numbers of English, other UK and foreign players in the starting line-ups of the Premier League teams on the first weekend of the season. In the early-1990s, English players dominated. Now, they're outnumbered by foreign players.

Internationally, however, English football reached its nadir in the mid-1990s, when English players still dominated the domestic league. In February and March 1996, FIFA ranked the England team 27th in the world. More recently, the England team has been mostly in the top ten (although, in October, the latest available month, England's position had admittedly dropped to 11th). Over the long haul, therefore, the foreign invasion has actually led to something of an English footballing renaissance.

What about other national teams? Italy, the current World Champions, provide a different perspective. All of the players in the Azzurri's 2006 winning squad came from their domestic league and their domestic league is, in turn, dominated by Italian players. During the 2006-07 season, Italian players contributed 70 per cent of all appearances in Serie A, whereas the equivalent figure for English players in the Premier League was only 43 per cent (although while Spain's league is dominated by home grown talent, their national team isn't exactly a beacon of success).

The German Bundesliga's domestic quotient was also 43 per cent last year and yet the German team isn't doing too badly, in sixth place in the FIFA rankings, only two places below Italy. And, in any case, who'd want to emulate Serie A's earlier reputation for endemic corruption?

The biggest difficulty, though, with the "too many foreigners" argument is the sheer introspection of the approach. FIFA ranks Argentina and Brazil first and second in the world, but how many of their players are benefiting from regular performances in the Brazilian and Argentine domestic leagues? Of Bra-zil's current squad, only one player earns his wages in Brazil. For Argentina, only five play in the domestic league. The rest all play in Europe – and, interestingly, not many choose to play in the Premier League. Brazil and Argentina are not alone. Of the 22 players in France's World Cup-winning squad in 1998, 12 chose to play in non-French leagues (for the record, four played in the Premier League but seven played in Italy).

This observation raises an obvious question. Why do so few Englishmen play abroad? If the success of so many other national teams seems to rest on a cosmopolitan approach to the game, why do English players not choose to spread their wings a little? Why are the Gerrards, Terrys, Rooneys and others not prepared to experience life in other leagues? Why are they so unwilling to take a few risks, to test their talents to the full? After all, if they did so, their own games would improve and there would, perhaps, be more domestic opportunities for up-and-coming English players in the Premier League.

Of the possible answers, I'll offer two. The first is simply a question of ability. Despite all the hype, English players just aren't good enough.

The second is a question of money. English players won't go abroad because they're paid way too much money at home. As money has poured into the Premier League, so the top clubs have become monopsonies, with monopolistic player-buying power (which raises a whole bunch of other questions about the distorting effects on competition of the influx of super-rich owners).

The monetary incentive for English players to move abroad is reduced and, as a result, their development into world class international players is possibly stifled. Playing in only the one league may make a player very rich, but there's no guarantee that he'll end up with the flexibility and creativity that may be required for success at international level. The demand for quotas to limit the number of foreign players in the Premier League is nonsense. It's really no more than an infant industry argument – protecting your domestic business in the light of tough foreign competition – in an industry which can hardly be described as being in its infancy.

The Premier League may currently be one of the better leagues in the world, but that's only because foreign players have been allowed in. As with any quota system, reducing their presence might provide more opportunities for English players, but only at the expense of a lower quality of football. It's difficult to see how that, alone, would lead to any improvement in the national team's footballing fortunes.

Stephen King is managing director of economics at HSBC