A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Friday, 20 June 2014

England are out of the World Cup

One of the reasons I haven't posted in over two weeks is that I've been watching the World Cup. I've been trying to resist the long-standing instinct to support England, and being involved in the students' sweepstake at the church I go to in Manchester has helped a bit. I drew the USA, and so that's who I'm supporting.

Incidentally, I love the US shirts. They should really be topped off with a tricorn hat in my opinion, but they're still rather elegant.

In any case, this whole "not supporting England" is now a lot easier, with England knocked out after only two games. The comment which has been going around is that "we went into the tournament with no expectations, and we've still been disappointed." At some point recriminations will start flying about concerning precisely why England did so poorly, and my great fear is that action will be taken by the FA in an attempt to remedy it.

Why do I fear this? For the same reason I fear attempts by governments to solve many problems - I fully expect them, if anything, to aggravate the problem. In particular, I worry that they will conclude that the problem is that too many foreigners are playing in the Premier League, and implement limits on the number of foreign players a club may have on its team. In his "plan to boost English football", Greg Dyke - chairman of the FA, former Director-General of the BBC, and holder of numerous other public-sector appointments - called for a limit of two non-EU players per team in the Premier League and a ban on non-EU players in the lower leagues, and calls for a reduction in the number of EU players although of course, due to the UK being in the EU, this would be much harder to enforce.

Dyke, along with various others, argues that there are too many foreign players in the Premier league and that this stymies the development of homegrown talent. He sees this as a threat to "English football", and therefore argues that there should be limits on foreign talent. There are several gaping holes in this argument.

First, let us focus on the vagueness of the phrase "English football". What does he mean by this, and how is it threatened by large numbers of foreign footballers playing in the English leagues? Perhaps he means the quality and profitability of the leagues, but it is hard to see how having foreign players threatens this. The quality of domestic teams is greatly improved by the presence of foreign star players in English leagues.

Perhaps he means grassroots level football. There is perhaps something of an argument in his defence here. If there is no chance for young English players to get a job in football, perhaps because the positions are being filled by foreign players, they may well play less often. But is this really plausible as a major effect? Most people who regularly play football have no hope of ever being employed in the sport - if a team hasn't recruited you by the time you're 18 or so, they never will, and yet tens of thousands of people turn out each week to play in the Sunday leagues and on school and university teams and a whole host of other things. And that's just the organised football - think of the innumerable parks filled with friends having a kickabout with nothing more than four jumpers and a ball. People don't play because they hope to be spotted by a team, they play because they enjoy the sport and because it is an important institution for social interactions.

Perhaps he means the national team will be weakened - clubs have less incentive to develop homegrown talent when they can buy talented players from elsewhere. While this is pretty plausible, it is hard to see why this is an especially bad thing. Whereas the clubs and leagues are major sources of income and wealth for the country, and provide a great deal of entertainment to people around the world, and grassroots football provides a number of benefits - hedonic benefits, better health, etc - what does the national team actually do? There is a hedonic benefit when the team wins, but this is very small given how few matches the national team plays compared to the clubs. Will the average England supporter's enjoyment of the rest of the World Cup be damaged so very much by the national team's absence? Apart from that, the only effect I can think of is a (claimed - I'm sceptical given the timing and absence of a link to the actual research) increase in domestic violence immediately following matches.

In any case, even if the success of the national team is something worth attempting to increase, will this achieve it and will it be worth the cost to the overall quality of football in the leagues? It seems far from obvious that reducing the quality of the league in which most English players play will help develop a stronger team.

In fact, I believe Dyke is almost diametrically wrong: there problem is not that there are too many foreigners coming to England, but that there are not enough English players going abroad. Look at this graph of the percentages of players who play in their home country:

England is noticeable primarily for how few players it exports. (It's not that England managers are unwilling to use homegrown but foreign-playing talent - going through the team lists of the top European non-English teams, Barcelona have no-one English, Real Madrid have no-one English although they have the Welshman Gareth Bale, Bayern Munich have no-one, AC Milan have no-one, FC Porto have no-one, Inter Milan have no-one, Valencia have no-one...). This seems like a far more serious issue to me - players are missing out on valuable experience of football in other countries, and miss out on playing in either of the world's top two teams.

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