English soccer protectionism would be an own goal

June 25, 2014

By George Hay

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

England’s footballers can get better – but not by embracing protectionism. The national team’s failure to progress beyond the group stages of the 2014 World Cup should not have come as a surprise to English soccer’s ruling body, the Football Association: only last month, its chairman published a report advocating radical change. But the FA’s suggested solution could make things worse.

With 2.9 billion euros of club revenue in 2012-13, the English Premier League is the world’s richest. But homegrown players qualified to play for England represent only 32 percent of starters in championship matches – against 69 percent in the mid-1990s, before the “Bosman ruling” relaxed controls on the free movement of players in Europe. The FA reckons this could partly explain why England apparently underperforms. It wants to bump the proportion of English players to 45 percent of the “top European leagues” – by which it seems to mean the Premier League – by 2022. One of its ways to achieve this involves tightening restrictions on non-European Union players.

That may look like the equivalent of the theory of “import substitution” through which emerging markets like Latin America tried to develop homegrown industries by protecting them from foreign competitors after World War Two. It achieved mixed results at best, although outright protectionism originally worked for Japan and South Korea. It is less obviously the solution for English football, hardly a nascent industry, where eye-watering television revenue enables the largest clubs to buy the best global players and run the best league. When their national team isn’t being outplayed at the World Cup, English fans seem happy to pay steep subscriptions to watch higher-quality League matches.

In fairness, the FA has identified a number of better reasons why England lags the competition. At grassroots level, English coaching and training facilities are substandard. That might be because foreign coaches are paid twice as much as English ones. England also has one all-weather pitch enabling meaningful winter training for every 24,000 citizens; Germany, one in 8,000. This might explain why, with the exception of a spirited and skillful showing against Italy in this year’s World Cup, English players are in general less proficient than international peers at the basic skill of passing the ball.

The FA is also right to flag the biggest problem: that teenagers who do initially make the grade in Premier League club academies don’t get the equivalent of a tertiary footballing education: it is quicker for short-termist club managers on instant-results contracts to employ foreigners who are slightly older or who have benefitted from better grassroots training abroad. Wayne Rooney-style prodigies entering the national team before the age of 20 remain the exception.

Another way to address the problem, argues Soccernomics author Stefan Szymanski, would be to incentivise English players to go abroad. FA money could be used to subsidise foreign clubs that take them on. Possibly for cultural and socioeconomic reasons, only one current senior English international plays abroad. That compares to the 40 percent of the Spanish, Dutch and French national squads who have played in the Premier League. Three times as many footballers aged 18-21 in Spain and Germany played first-team football in the first half of the 2013-14 season as those in England. Spanish and German footballers who played for their under-19 national teams between 2006 and 2008 played more than twice as many minutes in the elite pan-European Champions and Europa League competitions than English players by the time they were 22, according to the FA.

An FA bursary system wouldn’t necessarily mean English youngsters joining elite foreign clubs like Real Madrid. But they might join decent French or German first-division sides that could afford them a better development than the uncompetitive under-21 league matches in England. Encouraging a more geographically diverse pool of players from which to pick the national team sounds better than raising the drawbridge to foreign players, which could affect the English League’s pre-eminence.

Better balancing player imports and exports wouldn’t guarantee an England World Cup triumph in 2022, as the FA dreams. And English fans bemoaning the latest failure should ask themselves whether they want better football once every four years, or every weekend. But even if it’s the latter, the national team’s interests will be best served by being more open – not more insular.

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