Football: English game perfects foreign accent: Simon O'Hagan sketches the rise of the overseas player in football's home territory

Click to follow
The Independent Online
OSSIE ARDILES always was a citizen of the world: dapper, urbane, set apart from the rest of the World Cup-winning Argentines of 1978. Some of the others in the side would work themselves up into quite a frenzy - Kempes, Luque, Passarella - but not little Ossie, with his cool head and nimble footwork, exactly the qualities he is now showing as a manager.

Keith Burkinshaw, then the Tottenham Hotspur manager, liked what he saw, but then so did a lot of people. The difference was that Burkinshaw went out and bought not just Ardiles but his fellow-Argentine Ricky Villa as well. It was the most audacious, exotic transfer anybody could remember.

Sixteen years on, the wheel has turned full circle. Now Ardiles is the Tottenham manager, and his double signing last week of Jurgen Klinsmann and Ilie Dumitrescu - two of the biggest stars of the World Cup - has stunned English football in much the same way that he and Villa did when they arrived.

A month after the Ardiles- Villa transfer, Bobby Robson, the Ipswich Town manager, decided it was time for his club to expand its horizons. In his case a journey to the South Atlantic was not necessary. He merely had to nip across the North Sea to bring to Ipswich one of the best foreigners ever to play in the English game, the willowy Dutch midfielder Arnold Muhren. And within seven months Muhren had been joined by his compatriot Frans Thijssen.

For a while, these four were the only leading foreigners in the English game. The odd East European or Scandinavian slipped in to the country, the most noticeable probably being Vladimir Petrovic, the Yugoslav of whom Arsenal had great hopes. But it didn't work out, and the idea that foreigners were there to be considered alongside domestic talent remained an unconventional one.

Gradually things started to change. English managers cottoned on to the fact that the well of domestic talent was not bottomless. More pertinently, there was the economics of it. Even an 18-year-old who had merely looked good in a handful of Third Division games was coming quite expensive.

So managers started looking abroad and discovered that there were some bargains to be had as well as some decent players. The benighted clubs of Eastern Europe were delighted to pick up pounds 250,000 in hard cash, often for a goalkeeper, who if he had been English would have cost three times as much.

Scandinavia, where the domestic leagues were weak, became a good hunting-ground for dependable pros - men who would 'do a job for you', settle in quickly, pick up the language, and not dent your wallet too much. Head north and you could find yourself watching Norway v Sweden, with a few locals thrown in to help make up the numbers.

The jobs these foreigners got tended towards the unglamorous. Let them do the defending, while the starring roles remained in the hands of the English - or Welsh or Scottish or Irish. There were exceptions, of course - think of France's Didier Six at Aston Villa, an eccentric signing by any standards - but the idea was that the team would retain its national identity. Or so we thought.

But that was to overlook the fans' need for cult heroes, and such urges know no frontiers. Think of Johnny Metgod, Nottingham Forest's Dutchman (who also had a brief, unhappy spell at Spurs) and Jan Molby, Liverpool's Dane, and they were more than just your average import, drafted in for expediency rather than inspiration. These men embodied the heart and soul of the team.

At the moment this is true of nobody more than Eric Cantona. And it was Cantona's arrival at Leeds United, and his subsequent transfer to Manchester United which marked the latest phase in the history of foreigners in the English game. You cannot separate Cantona's genius from his

foreign-ness, and he showed the rest of the domestic game that superstars from overseas need not be confined to your television set.

A foreigner can inspire - and it is very much in that hope that Ardiles has made his signings. Inspiration is exactly what Tottenham need at the moment. Whether Jurgen or Ilie can become Tottenham's Eric in the eyes of their fans remains to be seen. But they have created a buzz about the place and got Tottenham noticed for other than the usual reasons. That is surely a big part of the rationale behind signing them. And, of course, they are by domestic standards very good value. The cost of Dumitrescu and Klinsmann combined is a little less than what Blackburn had to pay for Chris Sutton.

The rest of the world really is a market-place. English clubs are richer, well established back in Europe, and, dare it be said, more sophisticated in their outlook. Even the best overseas players are having to think hard when the offer comes in from an English club, no matter that there might be Italians in the running for you as well.

Those offers will not stop now. These days, indeed, you're not a proper club if you haven't at least tried to land that fabulous little winger from Sweden/ Spain/Nigeria. And who's to say that he won't sign?

(Photograph omitted)