So can the Premier League really be best in the world?

How can we reconcile the complete abjectness of England's national team with a club game that is globally admired? Glenn Moore looks for answers
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The Independent Football

We have a league which is widely regarded as equal to any in the world. So why has the national team failed to qualify for Euro 2008?

A clear distinction must be made between the national team and national league, one that the recent dropping of the suffix "Football Association" from the Premier League's title confirmed.

The League was set up by the FA with a view to enhancing the national team's prospects, but the FA soon lost control. It is run by the 20 member clubs, for the 20 clubs. To that end it is highly successful. Collectively, English clubs generate greater income, from television and merchandising, than any in the world. The leading clubs are a power in Europe, figuring in the last three Champions League finals. Domestic attendances are exceeded only by those in Germany, where tickets are far cheaper. The league is followed worldwide and its star players are millionaires.

However, many of those millionaires are from overseas. Premier League clubs have an average of 17 foreign players each, a greater concentration than any other nation. Almost the entire squad at Arsenal, the leaders, are foreign. Italy, the world champions, have an average of 10 foreigners per club; France and Spain are similar. When the England manager watches a Premier League match he is lucky to find half a dozen eligible players to study.

So is it all down to too many foreigners?

It is a factor, but far from being the only, or even the decisive, one. Until the late 1970s foreign players were extremely rare in England, yet the national side still failed to qualify for the finals of the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, and the 1976 European Championship.

It can be argued that even then English football featured many non-English players; they just came from nearer home, the rest of the British Isles. The Liverpool team that won the FA Cup in 1986, to complete the Double, did not feature a single player eligible for England. Yet that year England reached the World Cup quarter-finals in Mexico before being defeated by Maradona's "Hand of God" goal.

Despite the influx of foreigners, the pool of high-class English players has not diminished as much as popular perception would have it. Many of the players who have been pushed out of the top flight are Scots, Welsh and Irish. Steve McClaren still managed to find and cap 45 Englishmen in 13 months.

This tallies with the words of Sir Alf Ramsey in the early Seventies. The 1966 World Cup-winning manager told a journalist who had questioned his team's performance to go through the list of First Division players striking out all the Scots, Welsh and Irish, all those who were too old or too young, all those who had been tried and found wanting, and those who would obviously never be good enough, and see how many were left. It will be about 50, said Ramsey. The journalist, having checked, concurred.

The best English players, those who should be good enough to play for the national team, ought still to come through. Indeed, players such as David Beckham and John Terry credit examples set by foreign team-mates, such as Eric Cantona and Gianfranco Zola, as being instrumental in their own development, on and off the pitch.

Can we limit the number of foreigners?

Not significantly. European law allows any player hailing from a European Union nation to come here unrestricted. A tightening of work permits may reduce the number of non-Europeans, but even the current regulations largely ensure they are of a higher quality, like Manchester City's Elano. The solution is not to bar foreigners, it is to develop better Englishmen.

England is football-mad, so why are so few young players of quality being developed?

Some of the problems are beyond football's reach. Poor diet, concerns about child safety, the diminished role of school sport and selling-off of school playing fields, together with the growth of computer gaming and social networking websites, have created a more sedentary youth.

Are there other cultural issues?

English youngsters prefer playing matches to practising. Then there is the lad culture. Too many young Englishmen who have started making their way in the game, and earning serious dough for a teenager, are sidetracked by the birds-and-booze lifestyle of their peers and elders.

What are the prospects for those youngsters who avoid temptation and practise their skills?

They endure poor sports facilities, compared to most western European countries, and uninspired coaching.

What can be done to improve facilities and coaching?

Some improvements are being made. A smattering of money filters down from the Premier League's TV deals via the Football Foundation to fund better facilities but state and local authority investment is also required. The FA has devoted much energy to improving the training of coaches. They are, however, still paid poorly, affecting recruitment and retention.

The FA has set an appalling example by mothballing the planned National Football Centre at Burton. This saved £50m when the organisation was struggling with the spiralling costs of the new Wembley, but the FA is now financially healthy and should proceed with the project urgently.

Is not Burton modelled on Clairefontaine, the base from which France has reached two World Cup finals, winning one, and lifted the European Championship?


So why has the FA, now it has the money, not proceeded?

There has long been a turf war in the FA between the "amateurs", and the "professionals". The latter, which effectively means the Premier League, now appear to have the upper hand. Clubs fear if Burton goes ahead the FA will want control of their young players. There is also a suspicion that the clubs are stymying the plans of the FA's director of football development, Trevor Brooking, for similar reasons. The FA's weakness on the issue can be seen in its reluctance to take on clubs over releasing players for youth competitions, in which they could gain valuable international experience.

Is there any encouragement in our kids' performance in such competitions?

Some. The Under-17s reached the European final last season, and went on to make the quarter-finals of the world U-17s. But England have not won an age-group competition since 1993, when hosting the Under-19s.

This suggests expectations of the seniors are too high?

England have won one World Cup, when hosting (1966), and reached three semi-finals at major tournaments (World Cup 1990, European Championship 1968, 1996). To expect England to win tournaments is excessive. To reach three successive quarter-finals, as was achieved under Sven Goran Eriksson, is about par. But not to qualify is unacceptable.

So Steve McClaren was to blame?

Even given the injuries, which results from an overcongested season and overathletic game, yes. He made too many mistakes. But he was the most qualified Englishman, the only one to win a domestic trophy, or reach a European final, in 10 years.

Foreign coaches dominate at the top clubs. Harry Redknapp, in sixth with Portsmouth, is the highest-placed English coach. There is not a single Englishman working who has Champions League experience. Among nearly 200 coaches to have taken part in the competition the only Englishmen are Bobby Robson, retired, and the late Ray Harford.

What with the concentration of foreign players, owners and managers, the excessive fixture list, and the malign influence on the FA, it sounds as if the Premier League is actually a bad thing for the national team?

It does, doesn't it? But isn't it great to watch?