Football: Growing pains for the league of nations
Is football being stung - or saved - by the influx of foreign players? asks Guy Hodgson
Saturday 23 November 1996
If Bryan Robson could draw any consolation from a wretched period in the history of his managership at the Riverside Stadium, it will be that "Mrs" Emerson did not accompany her husband from Brazil last Saturday. The author of a critique that described Middlesbrough as a "strange terrible place... always windy and raining" did not know it, but she had witnessed Teesside while it was autumnally benign. Rio's 'Er Indoors missed the snow and gales of this week.
She was spared the icy blast of north Yorkshire in winter but her husband was not, and another tie to a club which paid Porto pounds 4m for him only last May was almost certainly loosened. Branco has already gone and Juninho, according to his agent, is yearning for the balmy climate of Serie A. The samba rhythm that accompanied the arrival of the Brazilians to Middlesbrough is slowing to the sombre beat that marks the departed.
The rumours of discontent swirling in the winds round Middlesbrough is a warning in football's new age. There is not a Premiership club that does not have a foreign player on its books as new money from satellite television has allowed managers to extend their horizons beyond the United Kingdom. England has become the honeypot of Europe. The question is: are we being stung?
The professional game in England now plays host to 204 foreigners, nearly 10 per cent of the total workforce, and 96 of them are with Premiership clubs. The number of unqualified successes is less impressive, however. For every Eric Cantona there is an Andrea Silenzi. Yet half the record fees at Premiership clubs have been spent on non-British Isles players. They are inexpensive compared with their domestic counterparts, managers say, but not so cheap that money is being wasted.
Certainly the quick fix of an import concerns the Professional Footballers' Association, which believes that clubs are throwing money abroad to the possible detriment of the game at lower levels. Fees are going to all parts east and west but not downwards in the volumes that used to sustain poorer clubs in the bottom reaches of the Nationwide League.
There is also a concern that cash that should be spent on developing talent is going instead to older footballers looking for a last, mink- lined hurrah. "The classic case was Jurgen Klinsmann," Gordon Taylor, the PFA's chief executive, said. "He had a season with Tottenham that was wonderfully successful but after one year he was off. There was a short-term gain but you wonder at the benefits long term.
"Money is flooding into the game in an unprecedented way. Ideally some of this would be percolating down to improve facilities at schoolboy level and to employ better youth coaches. If clubs are not careful they will throw money at the pinnacle of football's pyramid and forget the base."
A recent PFA survey showed standards at schoolboy level are falling behind those of the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, and this was before 38 players arrived in the Premiership from abroad in the last six months to limit the chances of home-grown talent. At Blackburn last Saturday, say, only three Chelsea players were eligible for England.
"It's important that clubs do not neglect developing their own players, because it will have repercussions for England if they don't," Taylor said. "I'm delighted that Liverpool and Manchester United have been rewarded for their hard work in this area by the likes of Fowler, McManaman, the two Nevilles and Beckham coming through."
All of which should not belittle the impact of some imports. There is not a youngster at Old Trafford who does not acknowledge a debt to Cantona, while goalkeeping, formerly considered one of this country's fortes, has been elevated by the arrival of Ludek Miklosko, Mark Bosnich, Dimitri Kharin and Peter Schmeichel.
Above all, the value for money that a good foreigner can bring (Gianluca Vialli on a free transfer compared with Alan Shearer's pounds 15m) allows clubs on modest budgets to compete on more or less equal terms with the likes of the money monsters of Manchester, Newcastle and their ilk. Derby paid less than pounds 3m to acquire the gifted Croatian internationals Igor Stimac and Aljosa Asanovic.
"There's always a risk," Jim Smith the Derby manager, said, "but you have to be more concerned the further south you go, because of the climate here. We've been lucky. I don't think the two Croatians spent more than 10 nights between them in hotels before they had found houses. A Scottish striker would have taken longer to settle. Having said that, you can still get a bad pounds 1.3m Croatian just as you can waste money on a British player."
Colin Todd, who has successfully assimilated two Danes into his team this season after doubling his money in a year with Sasa Curcic, also takes heed of geography. "I would avoid players from South America and to a lesser extent Italians and Yugoslavs," he said. But surely Curcic was a success? "I learned my lesson with him," he replied. "He's wonderfully talented but difficult to blend into a team pattern. In the nicest possible way, his temperament was a problem.
"You are safest with Scandinavian players. Most of them speak English and their climate and style of football is similar to ours. I don't think it's a coincidence that Alex Ferguson has brought three to Manchester United."
Which brings us back to Middlesbrough and their problem of juggling Scandinavian, Brazilian, Italian and Anglo-Saxon temperaments. When John Lambie was Partick Thistle manager in the early 1990s he heard that his concussed striker, Colin McGlashan, did not know who he was, he replied: "Great. Tell him he's Pele and get him back on."
The sad thing is that if Bryan Robson saw a new Pele playing in Rio tomorrow no one would blame him if he moved immediately. As fast as he could in the opposite direction.
Eric Cantona (Manchester Utd)
Previous clubs: Auxerre, Marseilles, Bordeaux,
To England: February 1992
Cost: pounds 900,000
Now at: Manchester United (November 1992)
Cost: pounds 1.2m
The most successful import. Made an immediate impact on the Leeds side that took the title in 1992. Moved to Manchester United and has taken another three championships in four seasons. Despite problems which led to a nine-month ban for attacking a supporter, is one of only three foreigners to be voted Player of the Year, in the distinguished company of Jurgen Klinsmann and Bert Trautmann.
Other successes: Andrei Kanchelskis (Everton), Peter Schmeichel (Manchester United), Slaven Bilic (West Ham United), Georgi Kinkladze (Manchester City).
Tomas Brolin (Leeds United)
Cost: pounds 4.5m
Made 17 starts and scored four goals for Leeds between his signing and the end of last season, but has been the cause of endless problems for the club since. Leeds fear that Brolin never recovered properly from a broken ankle sustained a year before he joined them, and attribute much of his loss of form, lack of games, and disaffection to this. Brolin, now in Sweden, is refusing to return to Leeds.
Other failures: Andrea Silenzi (Nottingham Forest), Glenn Helder (Arsenal), Marc Hottiger (Everton), Marco Boogers (West Ham United).
Faustino Asprilla (Newcastle)
Parma, Nacional Medellin
Cost: pounds 6.7m
Colombian striker with much still to prove in the North-east, where another striker who cost twice as much looks many times more value. Fluctuates between brilliance and absence (through inconsistency). With questions over his past off the pitch still unresolved, more are still unanswered about whether he can consistently turn in high-quality performances as part of a title-chasing side.
Other players yet to prove themselves: Juninho (Middlesbrough), Gianluca Vialli (Chelsea), Jordi Cruyff (Manchester United), Patrik Berger (Liverpool).
England's foreign legion
Country In the Total in Premiership
of origin Prem England clubs
Angola 1 1 Coventry 1
Argentina 0 1
Australia 7 22 A Villa 1, Coventry 1, Sheff Wed 1
Southampton 1, West Ham 3 Barbados 0 1
Belarus 0 1
Belgium 2 2 Coventry 1, Newcastle 1
Bermuda 0 2
Brazil 3 3 Coventry 1, Middlesbrough 2
Bulgaria 0 2
Cameroon 0 1
Canada 0 4
Colombia 1 1 Newcastle 1
Croatia 4 4 Derby 2, N Forest 1, West Ham 1
Cyprus 0 1
Czech Rep 4 4 Liverpool 1, Man Utd 1
Newcastle 1, West Ham 1
Denmark 5 13 Derby 1, Man Utd 1, Spurs 1
Middlesbrough 1, West Ham 1
Finland 1 3 West Ham 1
France 7 12 Arsenal 2, Chelsea 1, Leicester 1
Manchester Utd 1, Newcastle 1
Germany 1 7 Leicester 1
Ghana 1 1 Leeds 1
Georgia 0 3
Greece 1 1 Blackburn 1
Holland 12 27 Arsenal 2, Chelsea 1, Derby 2
Man Utd 2, Nottm Forest 1
Sheff Wed 2, Southampton 2
Italy 6 8 Chelsea 3, Middlesbrough 1
Nottm Forest 1, Sheff Wed 1
Iceland 1 4 Arsenal 1
Israel 2 2 Southampton 1, Spurs 1
N Zealand 0 4
Nigeria 1 3 Wimbledon 1
Norway 14 19 Blackburn 2, Chelsea 3
Liverpol 1, Man Utd 2
Middlesbrough 1, N Forest 1 Southampton 2, Spurs 1
Poland 1 2 Sunderland 1
Portugal 3 8 Aston Villa 1, West Ham 2
Romania 3 3 Chelsea 1, West Ham 2
Russia 2 2 Chelsea 1, Everton 1
St Vincent 0 1
S Leone 0 1
S Africa 2 4 Leeds 2
Spain 0 5
Sweden 4 8 Blackburn 1, Everton 1
Leeds 1, Leicester 1
Switzerland 1 1 Everton 1
Tobago 1 2 Aston Villa 1
USA 1 5 Leicester 1
Yugoslavia 3 3 A Villa 2, Sheff Wed 1
Zimbabwe 1 2 Coventry 1
Research: Nick Harris
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