Liverpool have brought in an American, Arsenal have gone Japanese and Dutch, Notts County have signed a Canadian, an Australian and a Kiwi, while Chelsea have acquired internationals from South Korea, Sweden, the Netherlands and Chile.
Welcome to the new season of the FA Women’s Super League, which begins this week and, as the women’s game moves from being a largely amateur sport towards a professional one, is beginning to adopt aspects of the men’s game not everybody welcomes. The women don’t dive, surround the referee or feign injury – not yet, anyway – but there has been an unprecedented influx of foreign players.
As with the men’s game, this is both good and bad for many of the same reasons. In the men’s game top-class foreign players have driven up playing standards but many clubs have signed foreigners of middling ability because they were cheap and experienced. Young English players have been squeezed out, unable to gain sufficient playing time at the top level to fulfil their potential.
The women’s game is still a long way from that stage. One reason the first division remained at eight teams when the competition expanded to two divisions this season (there are 10 teams in WSL2) was a recognition that there was not enough native talent to support more elite clubs.
However, it should be remembered that only 11 foreign players started on the opening day of the Premier League in 1992, and, as England is one of only a handful of countries in which female footballers can earn a salary (the other main ones being Germany, the United States, Sweden and France), the WSL will become an increasingly popular destination.
David Parker, the manager of Birmingham City Ladies, who kick off this season on Wednesday at home to Everton (Notts County play Arsenal the same evening), is one of those concerned. He told the blog mywomensfootball: “Only the top international players should be targeted to come over and improve our game, I don’t have a problem with this. However, there have been many cases already of average foreigners coming over and adding nothing to the league then disappearing. They are taking up valuable financial resources and also playing time for our younger generation. Foreign players will always demand a higher financial package than their domestic counterparts. This is taking FA money directly out of the hands of the players they are trying to benefit, our own.”
The new England coach, Mark Sampson, sees both sides of the argument, having had a trio of Spanish players in his previous job at Bristol Academy.
“The idea was to help the team improve, but also to educate young players in how to eat correctly, the hours you put in as a professional, how to prepare in terms of rest. It really helped us having those senior players in. If clubs bring in players from abroad who are genuine world-class talents and professional in how they train and conduct themselves, it can only help, not only our young players, but also senior players. But there can be a concern that clubs will bring in foreign players who are not at that level and they clog up space for our young players.”
The FA has lost control over the men’s Premier League to the clubs, but it still controls the women’s game and is putting £3.5m into it over the next five years. Kelly Simmons, director of the national game and women’s football, said: “It is getting a balance. When you talk to the [English] players, they want a strong competitive league that will help them develop as players and at international level, but you have to make sure English talent coming through has the chance to get games. It is obviously important we monitor how much playing time English players get.”
As with the men, EU employment law means the FA is limited in what restrictions it can place on foreign players, but the current requirement for 50 per cent of a club’s squad to be “home grown” (in the English system for three years up to the age of 21) does seem loose, given that it applies to a 40-woman squad that also covers the development league for 18-21 year-olds. “We could tighten the home-grown rule if we feel we need to,” added Simmons. “The long-term solution is to develop better players.”
To that end the FA has set up an elite unit at St George’s Park to focus on the women’s game, and WSL clubs have to run centres of excellence at which every girl is eligible for England. In the meantime, though, the fact that English talent is spread thinly is evident from the winter’s transfer merry-go-round, during which around half Sampson’s squad have moved.
The big recruiters have been Manchester City, newly and controversially parachuted into the top flight at the expense of the pioneering but less well-resourced Doncaster Rovers Belles. City are not a new team – they were formed in 1988 – but it is only recently they became allied to the men’s club, whose subsequent investment is likely to establish them as a powerhouse.
City, intriguingly, have only signed one foreigner, New Zealand’s Betsy Hassett, preferring to take on the spine of the England team: the goalkeeper Karen Bardsley, defender and new England captain Steph Houghton, midfielder Jill Scott and striker Toni Duggan.
Everton, once a power in the women’s game but losing key players as their budget diminishes in relative terms, have no foreign players, while Liverpool, last year’s champions, and Chelsea have five. Equally concerning from an domestic development viewpoint is that though Arsenal, once perennial title-holders, have only three foreigners, add a quintet of Scots and Irish and Shelley Kerr could field a team with just three Englishwomen.
The FA have limited clubs to fielding only two non-EU players at any one time, but as with the men's game are finding this restriction has loopholes. Chelsea's Chilean international goalkeeper Christiane Endler - who will compete for a place with Englishwoman Marie Hourihan - qualifies as an EU citizen as she has a German father. She can thus take the field along with Yuki Ogimi, a World Cup winner with Japan, and South Korea's Ju So-Yun.
Ogimi was signed by Emma Hayes as much to show the other players the level required to reach the top as for her goals and no one has a problem with players of that quality playing in the WSL. Just as Eric Cantona influenced the likes of David Beckham by the example he set on the training ground, and Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling have improved by playing with Luis Suarez, so Ogimi will raise the standard. The FA’s problem, as the WSL grows, is finding a way to maintain the quality of imports. If it fails, the path for young Englishwomen will become as blocked as it is for young Englishmen.
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