Football / The Import Trade: Adventurers in search of the English experience: From Max Seeburg to Jurgen Klinsmann foreigners have brought variety to the domestic game. Phil Shaw reports
Tuesday 16 August 1994
Max Seeburg was also a German forward who, by odd coincidence, played for Spurs. Like Klinsmann, for whom the English experience starts in earnest at Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, he too made a late-summer debut in Yorkshire, which in 1908 meant an arduous trek indeed.
Klinsmann must hope the similarities end there. Not only did Spurs lose to Hull, but Seeburg's first League outing proved to be his last. Strange to reflect, then, that such an ill-starred 'career' blazed a trail for Osvaldo Ardiles, Arnold Muhren and Eric Cantona, whose impact has in turn paved the way for a new platoon of football's foreign legion in the aftermath of USA '94.
Exactly seven decades separated Seeburg's sojourn from the advent of Ardiles which, curiously, also followed a World Cup from which England were absent. During that time the main overseas influence came from South Africa, with George Robledo and Bert Trautmann two celebrated exceptions.
Robledo, a stocky goalscorer whose brother Ted played alongside him for Newcastle, had somehow been exiled near Barnsley after a revolution in Chile. Trautmann was a German POW in Lancashire when he first tried his hands at goalkeeping, going on to become a Manchester City legend.
He married a local girl, but on being sent off in 1962, Trautmann famously railed against 'bloody English referees.' Nor was the host nation immune to xenophobia, as demonstrated by Tommy Smith's welcome to Ardiles and his fellow Argentinian, Ricardo Villa.
The former Liverpool hard man dismissed the pair as 'fancy flickers' after playing against them for Swansea. Spurs, he sneered, 'ought to buy a good stock of cotton wool for such posers'.
With his thrillingly fluid surges from midfield and seemingly telepathic link with Glenn Hoddle, Ardiles won over Smith and an entire football community. Moreover, the interest he generated, not to mention his giveaway price of pounds 325,000, soon prompted others to follow suit.
Sheffield United, whose manager Harry Haslam was well connected in South America, was offered an unknown 17-year-old prodigy. The board deemed the deal too risky and took Alex Sabella instead of Diego Maradona. Meanwhile, those wanting to take a dip rather than a plunge were busy recruiting inexpensive Dutchmen and Yugoslavs.
Ivan Golac, now manager of Dundee United, made his bow for Southampton a week after Ardiles's debut. His swashbuckling full-back play earned him cult status at The Dell and, after returning to Yugoslavia, he came back because he felt 'homesick for Hampshire'.
'It's a very specific game in England, best suited to powerful players, and I had the physique,' Golac explained. 'I also worked hard and prepared 150 per cent for every game. I had no language problems because I'd grown up with the music of the Kinks, Stones, Who, Troggs and Small Faces, which helped me pick it up.'
Bobby Robson's elegant Dutch duo of Muhren and Frans Thijssen must have had a hell of a record collection, for they were instantly in tune with their Ipswich team-mates. (In a case with echoes of Maradona and Haslam, Robson and Arsenal's Terry Neill both turned down the teenaged Ruud Gullit, Neill confessing now that he feared pounds 30,000 was too much for 'this wild kid'.)
Yet numerous other imports failed to meet the demands of the 'specific game'. Conspicuous among them were Alberto Tarantini, a World Cup winner alongside Ardiles, who became Birmingham's biggest buy; his countryman Claudio Marangoni, and Drazen Muzinic, of Yugoslavia, record signings for Sunderland and Norwich respectively. Bought for an aggregate pounds 1m, the trio made a total of 57 appearances before heading home.
Nevertheless, the prospect of picking up an international for half what a comparable British player would have cost continued to seduce managers. The exotic names tended, alas, to be more memorable than their achievements. Who can forget Didier Six, Mirandinha, Avi Cohen, Sergei Baltacha or Romeo Zondervan?
Vladimir Petrovic, Arsenal's capture from Red Star Belgrade in 1982, epitomised the dilemma: sumptuous skill, shame about the work-rate. As Ivan Ponting wrote in Arsenal Player By Player: 'He would drift through games with the detached air of a man out for a quiet afternoon's aircraft-spotting.'
Still they came. David Pleat bought two from the Continent in the 1980s - Yugoslavia's Raddy Antic and Belgium's Nico Claesen - with typically patchy results. Antic settled quickly at Luton but is remembered for a status-saving goal at Manchester City rather than any Muhren-like playmaking. Claesen coped well with Spurs on the park, less so off it.
'Antic rang on his way over to say he'd had an accident in France and he'd be late,' Pleat recalled. 'I feared the worst, but within weeks he'd sorted out a property, got his kids in good schools and was visiting stately homes in his spare time. Whereas Claesen had been here a month when his TV blew up. He was ringing the club, saying: 'What do I do?' '
On his return to Luton, Pleat hit a snag this summer's buyers might face. His predecessor had paid pounds 650,000, twice the club's record, for Denmark's Lars Elstrup. Now Elstrup's two-year contract was up, and he insisted on going back to his club in Odense.
'Danish clubs sell big but don't buy big,' Pleat, who recouped just pounds 200,000, reflected. 'That should be a warning to everyone.' For all that, Scandinavians, particularly Norwegians, are coveted by bargain-hunters. They supposedly have the requisite strength and temperament, and speak good English.
In contrast, the English game awaits its first bona fide Italian. Apart from the cash chasm - David Platt's reputed pounds 30,000 a week at Sampdoria is more than double Klinsmann's salary - the rigours of an English season hold no appeal. When Crystal Palace courted Kennet Andersson, the Swede said he would rather stay in France and play 40 games than 60 across the channel.
Still, there is plenty of panache among the new intake. Ilie Dumitrescu, from Romania, promises to complement Klinsmann's north European virtues with 'Latin fantasy'. Bryan Roy maintains a foreign tradition at Nottingham Forest (the Dutch have supplied more players to England than any nation, one in eight of post-war imports). There are even two Ghanaians, Nii Lamptey at Aston Villa and Stoke's regally named trialist, Prince Polly.
Alain Sutter, the Swiss midfielder with hair like a superhero's cape, would have been Golac's choice given the freedom to buy anyone from the World Cup. 'I liked Hagi, Stoichkov and Roberto Baggio too,' he said, 'though I'd take Ryan Giggs ahead of any of them.' Pleat nominated Brazil's wing-back, Leonardo, while suggesting that players from teams not in the finals, especially Czechoslovakia, Denmark and France, might offer better value.
Golac, who brought the outstanding sweeper Gordan Petric from his homeland for pounds 600,000 last year, would have no hesitation in buying from Romania ('an excellent generation') or Bulgaria ('the best front players in Europe'). But his Luton counterpart cautions against 'getting carried away' by foreign stylists on television.
'Klinsmann won't have a problem, but the East Europeans ought to come over in pairs,' Pleat said. 'In nine months, when they're lonely or finding it too tough, these clubs will be pushed to get their money back. Having said that, it's good to see the effect they have in training. Players like to imitate their tricks and movement.'
Movement, of money out of the domestic game, and tricks - deals encouraged by agents 'interested only in lining their pockets' - are also on Gordon Taylor's agenda. The Professional Footballers' Association leader rails against 'imported labour that's merely cheaper, not better', and claims that the majority of foreigners prove unable to adapt.
While it is sad that Middlesbrough's imaginative bid to sign a Bolivian, Jaime Moreno, looks set to founder in the face of union objections, the facts back Taylor. Of nearly 200 post-war recruits from non-Commonwealth countries, over a third played the equivalent of less than half a season. The 1980s were littered with one-game wonders like Roch Karaa, of Darlington and Tunisia, Moshe Garyani, of Brighton and Israel, or the Dutchman Pierre Essers at Walsall.
But no football lover would deny that genuinely world-class performers can only enhance standards. Taylor hopes the presence of the Klinsmanns and Dumitrescus may even militate against the long-ball game and thereby help the national team.
England's prospects would have been low in purchasers' priorities. Ardiles, for one, maintains he is building for the championship, his main impact as a player having come in cups. Muhren led Ipswich rather closer to the title 15 years ago, only for them to lose crucially at Middlesbrough to two goals by the late Bosko Jankovic, a a greatly underrated forward who went back to practice law in Sarajevo.
Now that Cantona has succeeded with a vengeance where others failed, how ironic to recall that he initially came over only as a trialist with Wednesday and was evidently regarded by Leeds as a Lee Chapman-with-tricks. Or that it took an Argentinian to carry off arguably the most audacious transfer coup since the one that brought himself and Villa to London.
In 1978, one paper opined that 'if Spurs had bought Batman and Robin they could scarcely have created more curiosity'. With a new dynamic duo in harness, and the Creme de la Prem primed at Old Trafford, the most cosmopolitan campaign in years beckons. Come Hull or high water, the class of '94 will surely make a bigger splash than Max Seeburg.
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