Can Those British Weaklings Cope Abroad?

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Conventional football wisdom (an oxymoron if ever there was one) has it that Brits simply do not travel well, and this despite the fact that two of the largest low-cost airlines in the world are British. Such a belief has lingered in the mindset of British and foreign football fans alike for even longer than it took Antonio Rattin and Emmanuel Adebayor combined to leave the field of play after their respective dismissals.

However, if we shine a light through the brume of British bravado and European generalizations, it soon becomes clear that the “rootedness” of British footballers in British soil owes itself almost entirely to myth and custom.

“Who really cares?”, I hear you proclaim. Well, this article covers issues further-reaching than one might first imagine, as such a “demystification” of the British footballer can ultimately be serviced to demonstrate that the failure of British national football teams has little or nothing to do with a lack of technical ability, and far more to do with mismanagement and underperformance.

We also hope to shed light on the fact that English youngsters seem to be as popular as the plague amongst foreign bosses. Even in the virtual reality of Championship Manager, there seems to be a better chance of Barnet winning the Champions League than there is of a mass of English internationals suddenly signing for Juventus.

One reason often cited for the (apparent) inability of English players to adapt to foreign climates is the difference in footballing styles supposedly in evidence across the different European leagues. Serie A, the Eredevisie and La Liga, each with its own distinguishing feature — La Liga’s quick interplay, Serie A’s strong, difficult-to-unlock defences and rapid counter-attacks — are commonly cited as the more “technical” leagues, where the burly oafs of English football stand little chance of prospering.

Proof of this inability is apparently demonstrated in the fact that England’s greatest performances at international level came on home soil (1966, 1996), an argument which has its intrigue (we all know that Brazil are the only nation to have won the World Cup in another continent than their own) but ultimately falls short, in a manner of speaking, sort of like the English national side itself.

England have continually reached the latter stages of international tournaments over the last fifteen years (despite the media’s obsession with underachievement) and this irrespective of host country or continent. Such a myth was perpetuated by fans of other countries during the 1966 World Cup when, unhappy with ending up on the losing side, they lashed out at the English style of football, claiming that it was brutish and ugly and left no space for the twinkle-toes of Pélé. Funnily enough, such arguments continued to be used by Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger to protect Messrs Ronaldo & co., and this despite the fact that a vast amount of the defenders in question are neither English nor play in a decidedly “English” manner.

However, if one performs a thorough examination of the “crème de la crème” of club football, one sees that the evidence against such a theory is as overwhelming as Jonathan Ross when he gets excited during commentary. Take the top three sides in the Spanish and Italian leagues, for example, and it becomes clear that elite English players would stand ample chance of displacing their foreign counterparts, and that the arguments for the apparent “technicality” of foreign football is certainly not evidenced in the calibre of football player on display.

Carles Puyol and Fabio Cannavaro, the high-profile centre-backs of Real Madrid and Barcelona and stalwarts of the Italy and Spain defensive line-ups, are by no means well-known for their passing ability (indeed these two defenders are more in the mould of a Terry or a Dawson); whilst one is hard pressed to find amongst the heights of Spanish and Italian football (particularly as Maldini nears the end of his career) defenders as cultured as Rio Ferdinand and Ledley King; the only real challengers being Philippe Mexes, Christian Chivu and Rafa Márquez.

Equally, whilst players such as Gary Neville and Micah Richards are not particularly known for their technical prowess (for the record, the pace and power of the latter would enable him to play in most teams in the world), neither are Michel Salgado, Miguel Torres, Jorge Andrade, Jonathan Zebina, Christian Panucci, Gabriel Heinze, Khalid Boulahrouz, Drago, or Lilian Thuram.

Only such names as Gianluca Zambrotta, Eric Abidal, Marcelino, Dani Alves and Cicinho have a veritable edge over their English homologues in terms of technical ability, and it is notable that three of these names are Brazilian (therefore suggesting that there is no huge difference in make up between Spanish and English players, for example). Indeed, Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge, particularly the latter, have formidable passing and crossing ability, and what they may lack in raw skill they more than make up for in lightning-quick pace, an attribute which is patently transferable to all leagues around the world.

Such a trend continues, in every position, throughout the top teams in Europe; only a spectacular example of bias would deny that Steven Gerrard, Sean Wright-Phillips, Joe Cole (who is apparently trying to live down his “Zizou” tag, despite the Zidane-like skills he offered up in Saturday’s match), David Bentley and perhaps even the much-derided Frank Lampard have the technical ability to succeed in foreign leagues, ditto for Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen. Spain’s goalscorer on Saturday, Raúl Tamudo, as well as star striker David Villa, are not particularly well-known for their respective bagfuls of tricks.

So, now that this theory of “technical shortcomings” has been left whimpering and humiliated like a six foot Brazilian at Celtic Park, one must proceed to examine other possible reasons for the lack of air-miles accumulated by English players during their careers.

Another immature argument must be immediately red-carded before we proceed. Brits are commonly perceived as less able (and less willing) than their European counterparts to learn foreign languages; such a narrow-minded view of the British population is certainly not helped by comments such as those of David Pleat in 2004 — Pleat famously remarking “I don’t know where Mali is” when confronted with a footballer in Freddy Kanoute who wanted to pledge his troth to the country of his father’s birth.

However, anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time in Spain or Italy or heard Rafa Benítez cough his way through interview after interview repeating endlessly the words “okay” and “good” will know that (unlike in Germany, for example) the countries are not teeming with polyglots and that a horde of monolinguals are by no means unable to play football abroad.

One possible unbiased explanation could be the fact that the English league is amongst the strongest in the world, and this, coupled with the fact that British legislation allows clubs to sign youngsters on long and well-paid contracts from a young age, means that players have little reason to seek pastures new.

This point regarding English youngsters is particularly important; when a few weeks ago I asked readers of the Soccerlens Forum “why no-one is poaching English youngsters”, I was met with two types of response — the first, an almost racist response, merely repeated the generalizations outlined and dismissed above (do you really believe that James Vaughan could not succeed in another league? What about Gareth Bale?), whilst the second offered up a far more apposite answer:

English clubs (perhaps due to the influence of certain foreign bosses?) have more sophisticated scouting systems in place, and are permitted by law to snap up youngsters on professional contracts, whilst such an option is not available to bosses in La Liga and Serie A. What’s more, whilst the academy system has been roundly criticised by most parties up and down the British Isles, few have cottoned on to the fact that it is the excellence of British academies which serves to convince foreign youngsters that they will be better served coming to England.

Another hugely disdained institution, the Worthington Cup (commonly known as the “Worthless” Cup), proves to have a significant role in this structure; players such as Cesc Fabregas left their hometown clubs for England because of the promise of being quickly incorporated into the first-team set-up at their new clubs, and the existence of two domestic cups instead of one affords managers in England an additional opportunity to blood youngsters in competitive but (relatively) unpressurised arenas.

What’s more, clubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid (the former between 2001 and 2003 and the latter over the last five years or so) have now developed a bit of a reputation for not looking after their youngsters in the same way as they would be treated under the custody of Wenger and Ferguson, a failing to which can be attributed to no small extent the exodus of Fabregas, Piqué et al and the departure of several highly-rated Real Madrid youngsters lately, such as Granero, Mata and Bruna.

A cocktail of such advantages could certainly explain not only the desire of foreign youngsters to try their hand (and, for non-goalkeepers, their feet) in England, but also the relative lack of British youngsters who embark on careers abroad at a young age. Seeing as there is no inherent difference between the styles of footballers in the different leagues, and given the fact that Spanish and French players who have moved to England at a young age have not suddenly lost their technical skills, perhaps no Clairefontaine is needed after all?

Equally, whilst such a point could possibly raise “the-chicken-and-the-egg” style ripostes, it seems to me that the lack of presence of British managers abroad could explain the relative lack of movement amongst British footballers. Those managers who have enjoyed spells abroad generally made a greater attempt to work with what they had (Terry Venables, John Toshack — although the latter’s hands were tied by Basque constrictions), whilst foreigners Rafa Benítez, Gérard Houiller and Arsene Wenger can be seen as the driving forces behind the quantity of Spanish and French players flocking to the Premiership in recent years.

It is worth remembering that few Italian and Spanish players have moved to the Premiership over the last 15 years (indeed, all of Italy’s World Cup 2006 winning squad played their football in Italy at the time). Of the players that have made such a move, there have been as many successes as failures (for every Nunez there is a Fabregas, for every Morientes a Torres, for every Corradi a Carbone, etc.).

Such an asseveration can help us to reject another myth regarding British footballers; namely, that the few who did choose to go abroad, all flopped like Andy Johnson when shooting from twelve yards. Sure, Denis Law (who still managed 10 goals at Torino), Paul Ince and Paul Gascoigne had fairly unsuccessful spells in Serie A (one should note that the wheels had begun falling off Gazza’s career well before his move to Lazio — he had spent most of the 1992-3 season out injured, and would miss over 8 months due to injury in Rome).

However, players such as Michael Owen (mistreated at Madrid, but with an excellent goalscoring record), Gary Lineker (no-one who has seen the video of Lineker’s hat-trick against Real Madrid can doubt his ability to adapt) and David Beckham (who had most assists in the league in his first season and was inspirational in his final year) all did well in La Liga, whilst Kevin “Mighty Mouse” Keegan was idolised during his time at Hamburg. Indeed, rather ironically, whilst Beckham clearly possessed the technical ability to prosper in La Liga (his trademark and selling-point was evidently his dead-ball ability), he was perhaps most cherished by Real Madrid fans for his “all-action” style, that is to say his English grit and determination, which by no means undermined his stay at the club.

In a conclusion thankfully nowhere near as complex as Rafa Benítez’s weekly system of team selection (a numerological/astrological nightmare), I would like to wrap up by saying that the myth of the “unadaptable Brit” was in all probability invented by the jingoistic British tabloids, eager to keep the prodigal sons in the “home of football”. So much has this myth been inflated, that the smallest prick of a sharp needle — i.e. the example of just a couple of British stars going on to excel in foreign leagues (step up to the plate Chris Coleman) — should hopefully be enough to make this balloonful of hot-air crash and burn for good.

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