How to get the best out of foreign bodies

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The Independent Online
AT THE present rate of exchange, one sturdily built Anglo-Saxon footballer is reckoned to be worth approximately one German, two Romanians, three Nigerians and four displaced Bosnians. Even with seasonal adjustments, this would seem a case of market forces running beserk but you have to appreciate the nature of our game before you can understand the reason behind this apparent fiscal madness.

It is all to do with the strength of the pounding the players receive during a season that stretches from here to eternity or until next May, whichever comes first. Come rain, hail, snow, frost and fog, they will battle their way through a variety of competitions.

Your Johnny Foreigner may be a fancy footballer but he's not likely to have the stamina to see this long road through to the end. Neither do they arrive with the ability to understand the tactical nuances of the manager's pre-match pep talk, much less the crowd's helpful advice on what to do with the ball during a defensive crisis.

That's why your home-bred boy is so valuable. Tall and rugged, built to last the entire season and with a passable command of the language - these are the qualities for which you pay your money. It was all summed up by one of the few foreign footballers to have have turned down a move here during the summer. 'Why should I play 60 games in England next season,' he asked, 'when I can stay home and play 40?'

This is an attitude best not imported. Nevertheless, when unseasoned English strikers are fetching pounds 5m and defenders bearing names few households would recognise are valued at pounds 4m, it is very tempting for clubs to go to other countries in search of bargains and take a chance on staying power.

Indeed, working on the principle that all foreigners look alike, this could be a way around the stamina problem. If, say, for the price of one English left-back you can buy four fair-haired Swedish left-backs, or even four bull- necked Bulgarians, why not play them in turn during the season? In this way, they would be sure to last and you could rest assured that the foreigner at full-back would not only be an ever-present but would not fold up on you.

No doubt, unscrupulous clubs are already eyeing other possibilities. All four could be registered under the same name, giving rise to all sorts of interchanging possibilities. You could even make a switch at half-time. No one would notice and you'd still have your full allocation of substitutes. And if the FA ever introduced a strict ration of foreign players, you'd be ahead of the game.

An official restriction on the number of imported players has been called for by Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association. Alarmed that more than 100 foreigners from 37 different countries will be playing in England this season, he warned last week of dire consequences, not least for his members thus displaced. It is not a new cry. Imports have long been nibbling at our traditional skills. Look at our cotton industry. See how many sturdy scullery maids stand idle while the grates of the wealthy are being blackened by Filipinos.

Part of Taylor's case is that most players who have arrived here from abroad in the past have not adapted to our game. If they carry on multiplying at this rate, we'll have to start adapting to theirs. Perhaps that's the idea.

Taylor is also concerned about the effect on the England team. Perhaps playing with so many foreigners week in and week out would be disconcerting. On the odd occasion you pull on a England shirt it would be hard to lose the habit of racing for the far post shouting 'On me head, Jurgen'.

But, as we agreed in this space only a couple of weeks ago, the game is all about clubs for all but a short time and it is remarkable how easily we adopt a different attitude when it comes to switching our attention from club to country. As patriotic as we become when watching our country play, as proud as we are of the reflection it can provide of our roots, the feeling of close identity we have with our club is in no way similar. As long as they were winning, it wouldn't matter if the team were composed entirely of Madagascans.

When it comes to club level, football is like love; it knows no frontiers. Men whose beer would curdle in their glasses if a stranger of a different hue were to walk into their local, would swoon for joy if he ran out of the tunnel in their club colours on Saturday afternoon. Any racism in football applies only to the opposing side.

Taylor might find it difficult to turn back an immigrant tide that is almost as old as the professional game itself. Players have been moving freely over the borders of the four home countries since the Football League began more than 100 years ago. Then, as now, if a club needed a player in a certain position they obtained him from wherever they could.

The game might perhaps be better if clubs had elected to remain totally localised, able to recruit only from within the borough or county boundaries. Then Old Trafford would be for Mancunians only; none but Geordies would wear the black-and-white stripes of Newcastle United; you'd have to play for Spurs if you lived in one north London street and Arsenal if you lived in the next.

Which would have been our top clubs then? Would they have occupied bigger stadiums, have been watched by bigger crowds, swollen by civic pride? Without transfer fees to fork out, would they have ploughed the profit into fostering local football, encouraging the kids, developing a style of football that would be played from the cradle to the grave? Would our game be healthier for it and our managers and coaches the better for having to work with the talent they could develop rather than what they could buy?

We would certainly have a different game. I suspect it would be a more satisfying one. As it is, we need all the help we can get.

VERNON PUGH, chairman of the International Rugby Board, is in Australia to investigate if Australia and New Zealand have breached the rules by readmitting rugby league players who were threatening to take them to court. A rapid decision is expected in March.

Pugh, a QC, and his colleagues over here think it is better to go to court. This means, of course, that the poor wretches fighting for the basic human right to play a game of rugby union have to risk penury. It would also cost the unions a lot of money. Although, if they expect the world's best players to sweat for them for nothing, perhaps they won't pay the lawyers working on their case either.

CURIOUS that the Premiership do not intend to deduct the six-point penalty imposed on Tottenham by the FA until the end of the season. I would have thought it preferable for Spurs to start with the deficit so that we would know exactly where they stood in the league table at any given stage.

It may be my suspicious mind, but by leaving it until the last game, when the chop will be much more publicly painful whether they are at the top or the bottom, the Premier people ensure that we will be reminded what a crass decision the FA has taken.