The Rafael Benitez Column: English players for England? That's more complex than it sounds

It’s not about how many players you have, but rather how good they are

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The Independent Football

It was good to see Jack Wilshere talking about nationality this week and how he believes that only English players should play for England. Everyone loves to talk about football and every follower of the game is an armchair manager or player but perhaps sometimes we don’t hear the players’ ideas enough.

They are proud of their profession but some of them are reticent because the media is not always good at putting across the subtlety of what they say. Players wonder what the headlines will look like! So it is good that Wilshere, an intelligent player with ideas about the game, put his points well.

I’m not English, of course, though you know the affection I have for your country, so I’m reluctant to be giving big opinions always on what England should be doing and how they should be working. But I do think we can look at the history of people born outside of England playing for the country. The England white shirt has been worn over the years by players born in over 20 countries outside the United Kingdom. The pattern of those countries seems to reflect the way the British Empire looked but it also shows how young people have been travelling to settle in England from a young age for a very long time.

I was reading about John Barnes first settling in England as a young boy, aged about 12 years. That great goal John scored in the Estadio do Maracana for England in 1984 had a lot of Jamaica in it but Barnes was in no doubt about the country he wanted to play for.

It is more than 30 years since Barnes started playing for English teams and in that time the world has changed a lot. It is a global world we live in now and the mobility of people, settling in new places to find work and bring up children, is getting greater all the time. You can’t stop that.

It means that the idea of nationality has become more complex and the idea of what it means to be Spanish, Italian or English has changed a lot. We are all going through the change and England is not the only place where there has been a little bit of controversy. Diego Costa of Atletico de Madrid has decided he wants to play for Spain, if my old friend Vicente del Bosque selects him, rather than for Brazil, where he was born. There has been a debate about this in Spain. Some people say “OK, great”. Other people say that the world champions only need Spanish players. The situation has been complicated because Costa played for Brazil recently in a friendly game. But though the Costa situation is not resolved yet, on the whole there has been less worry in Spain about whether the international team should be allowed to select him.

The concern about this question is tied to the one about whether foreign players in the Premier League are affecting England’s chances, by reducing the number of players the manager has to choose from. I’ve seen from Italy that the debate has still been continuing very strongly since we last discussed it here in the column, a month ago. Again, I don’t want to be saying “this is right” or “that is right”, so let us deal with a few facts.

The BBC’s State of the Game report caught my eye this week. It showed that English players make up 32.26 per cent of all the minutes of football played in the Premier League so far this season – a figure which is down from 35.43 per cent in 2007-08. But in Spain, Spaniards make up 59 per cent of minutes played in La Liga and Germans make up 50 per cent of minutes played in the Bundesliga.

But does this tell us why the number is low? Figures can show a lot of things, without always finding the right answers. There were more British players in the Premier League in 1994, for example, but England didn’t qualify for the US World Cup that year. The problem finding enough international-quality English players is not a new one, either. I was reading about Sir Walter Winterbottom – the England manager after the Second World War. In 1950, he said: “I have only five players out of 22 to look at in a game.” He was talking about the problem with the numbers of Scottish and Irish players. England won the World Cup 16 years later.

So the facts tell different stories and it is not as simple as “too many foreign players”. It’s the quality of the players, not the number. To know that, just look at the population of Croatia (about four million) and another great “new” football nation, Belgium – 11 million. England has 53 million.

By now, you know my views on how in England it is necessary to work on the coaching aspect and on coaching the coaches and how I think that there are a lot of young players here who have the potential to be great England players, if they are developed. Playing alongside great players from other countries can help. At Liverpool, we had not won a Premier League title for 14 years when I arrived in 2004. We could protect the English players and win nothing or bring in players like Luis Garcia, Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres and have them playing alongside Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher or Glen Johnson. You know it was not a choice to make.

These are some of the numbers and the facts and, as I have said, I want to open the debate on who should play for England and who should play for England’s Premier League clubs. Let us know what you think and let us get the debate going further for next time.

But on the question of nationality, I have two good reasons to say that it is more complex than we might think. I only have to look at my daughters. They were both born in Spain but after almost 10 years on Merseyside think themselves English as much as Spanish.

Arsenal lesson can help us progress in Serie A

It was disappointing for our Napoli team to have lost in London to Arsenal in the Champions League. Arsène Wenger has a strong side, with pace. They were as good as I had said they would be beforehand and the 2-0 win for them showed us that. We are developing as a team at Napoli. We learnt things about how we must deal with sides of Arsenal’s quality and speed. It has been encouraging to see how we can recover from that. We enjoyed a good 4-0 win over Livorno four days after leaving London, despite not having Gonzalo Higuaín with us because of a small injury. Next, we look to our big game against Roma, the only side above us in Serie A, which has been brought forward to Friday because of public demonstrations. It will be a test for us. A lot of people are talking about it. But the spirit among us is good.

Naples and Liverpool share the same passion

Because of the international break, I am now enjoying some days back on Merseyside. I returned here on Thursday afternoon and will be back to Italy next week to begin preparing for the Roma match. There are so many similarities between Liverpool and Naples and the passion for football is one of them. Now, they are two cities who find their local teams riding high again in the league. When people stop me here, wanting to talk football, I tell them that the road through the season is a long one – but it is hard for them to look at it that way. Football is like that for all of us. It is a great creator of hopes and dreams!

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