England fail to solve foreign problem

English clubs thrive but national side's stock plummets as fears grow over overseas influence. By Steve Tongue
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The best football chants are pertinent as well as witty. At Villa Park earlier this month, 10 days after the national team had failed to qualify for a major tournament for the first time in more than a decade, Arsenal supporters watching their team produce the most sublime 45 minutes of the year sang: "Have you ever seen England play like this?"

The follow-up, directed at the numerous sides Arsne Wenger's young bloods have outclassed this season, runs: "You need more foreigners!" And there, in four words, the dilemma of the British game is distilled.

Coaches watching their side outplayed by Wenger's mixture of Frenchmen, Spaniards and 11 other nationalities are inclined to go down the same route rather than pay 15.5 million for a DarrenBent. Chairmen firing Premier League managers at a record rate (13 left during 2007) may also decide that the replacements and their contacts books might as well come from abroad as well. And who is to fund all the extravagant contracts? Send for an American franchise-owner, a Russian oligarch or a Thai exile. In the year that the Professional Footballers' Association celebrated their centenary with a report bemoaning the huge increase in overseas players, foreign influence has never been higher and England's stock rarely lower.

The PFA argued with some justification that the two were intimately linked. But when Steve McClaren was sacked with almost indecent haste the morning after elimination from Euro 2008 by Croatia, and the Football Association began to consider a successor, the English cupboard was just about bare. The FA's chief executive, Brian Barwick, tried to convince the football public that while Fabio Capello's achievements in European football made him the outstanding candidate, his successor should definitely be an Englishman. It was left to Sir Trevor Brooking, his director of development, to articulate the frustration of English coaches that their chances of reaching the Champions' League, let alone winning it, seemed further away than ever. The one consolation for England's failure was to open up debate about the way forward, with Brooking winning his first battle by securing agreement for a national football centre.

In contrast, English clubs continued to be feared throughout the Continent. Of the usual quartet in the Champions' League all except Arsenal reached the semi-finals last season and all are through to the knockout stage this time. A similar paradox is that while the England team will not be counted among Europe's best 16 next summer, the FA and the Premier League raked in huge amounts in broadcasting contracts, especially from overseas.

The foreign dignitaries Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, the presidents of the world and European governing bodies respectively, took a close interest in events here, Blatter expressing concern at the lack of indigenous players in the leading teams, and Platini trying and failing to broaden Champions' League participation by suggesting a place for the FA Cup winners. He must surely have noticed that the first final at a splendidly revamped Wembley was between Chelsea and Manchester United, and the last Carling Cup final in Cardiff featured Chelsea and Arsenal, as it may do again this season.

If Arsenal finish the year as England's most admired team, United, as reigning champions and European semi-finalists, can claim to have been the more successful. And their supporters' salute to the Footballer of the Year was right up there for wit, relevance and a succinct summing up of the prevailing mood: "He plays on the left, he plays on the right/That boy Ronaldo makes England look shite."

Reasons to be cheerful

1. Potentially exciting Premier League race, whether or not Chelsea and Liverpool last the pace behind Manchester United and Arsenal.

2. A grimmer sort of excitement in the relegation struggle too, with so many bad teams averaging a point a game or less.

3. Fabio Capello, a disciplinarian in charge of the England team at last.

4. Euro 2008: no Brits may mean a stress-free event for Swiss and Austrian police.

5. Players finally learn that two-footed tackles mean a red card. Surely the lesson will sink in. Won't it?

6. Distressingly for all wannabe Wags, no more clubs holding Christmas parties for at least 12 months.

Steve Tongue