The state of the game

Thierry Henry. Photo by: wonker www.flickr.com

Thierry Henry. Photo by: wonker
http://www.flickr.com

It’s almost 11pm as I sit down to write this so I’m cutting it a little fine today with my blogvember post-a-day challenge. In fact it’s been quite a long hard day and so I was very tempted to just write ‘this is a blog post’ and publish it. But my commitment to you dear reader (sometimes it is just one of you somewhere out there in the big web wide world) and to this challenge is greater than that.

The BBC have just produced their most recent State of the Game report (http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/30122051) which appears to be mostly concerned with the amount of time that English players spend on the pitch in the Premier League versus their foreign counterparts.

Apparently ‘the rise, from 32.36% of total playing time in 2013-14 to 36.08% until 1 October, can be solely attributed to newly promoted Burnley, who used just one non-UK player.’ So, around a third then and what are we to make of it?

I’ve often thought that football, and the English Premier League in particular, is one of the clearest examples of globalization in action: it’s watched all over the world, much of the best global talent is attracted to it, huge amounts of money flows in and out of it (often on the whim of club owners), many of its clubs can justifiably consider themselves international brands, there’s concern about the erosion of local identity and culture, and while the top salaries paid by clubs (to star players) are stratospheric many others that they employ (catering staff, cleaners and stewards) often struggle to earn a living wage.

Living and working abroad as I do, I’m hardly an anti-globalisation campaigner and I certainly don’t think that all of the effects of the phenomenon are negative ones. The world has been made smaller or at least to appear so (it still seems pretty big when you’re flying half way round it with two small children) and I was very happy to grow up in an era when international talent was being attracted to British football.

I say British football deliberately because a lot of foreign players play in Scotland as well. Sadly the quality of those foreign players to do is not nearly as high as it was when I was a season ticket holder at Dundee United in my teens. One of the best players that I’ve ever seen play was Brian Laudrup when he played for Rangers. It will be a while before we see talent like his in the Scottish game again.

But what’s happened in Scotland is instructive and the example of Dundee United provides an excellent illustration. We used to have a lot of foreign players in the side. Not outstanding ones like Laudrup but decent players capable of playing in the league. As finances have deteriorated across most of Scottish football, clubs have been forced to rely more on developing young players rather than signing people from abroad.

Recent years have seen some incredible young Scottish talent emerge at Tannadice. Robertson (sold to Hull in the summer) added to his growing reputation with fine performances for Scotland over the past week. Gauld (who joined Sporting Lisbon in the summer) has been dubbed the mini-Messi and is an absolute joy to watch.

The riches of the English Premier League will continue to attract the world’s best for the foreseeable future. It won’t necessarily always be that way though. The league’s bubble could pop if fans eventually start to drift away due to ticket prices and if TV companies begin to re-evaluate the return on investment they’re getting from the eye-watering sums they are paying for the rights to show games.

Clubs are making an effort to develop local talent but even at youth level that talent increasingly has to compete with those from overseas. Making it has become harder but those who do should be better as a result of the more intense competition. At least that’s how the argument goes and it makes intuitive sense but then why has the England team struggled so much of late?

Well, that’s a post in itself (for another day) and the role of foreign players in the English game is only one among many factors. Back at club level, most fans just want to see their team win and they’ll happily embrace anyone that helps make that happen.

Immigration has rarely been a bigger issue in British politics than it is now. I’m not sure the BBC’s report actually tells us much about the state of the game but the influx of foreign footballers -welcomed and revered in towns and cities all over the country – in the last few decades help us better understand both the current state of the UK and globalisation.

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