Living on the Dreams of Legends: Are foreign players in the Premier League stopping England win the World Cup?

The short answer to this question is: we don’t know. In the 2016-2017 season, 69.2% of players in the Premier League were foreigners. FA chairman, Greg Dyke, wants to decrease this figure to 60% by ensuring clubs give increased first team action to English players. Steven Gerrard believes fewer foreign players in the league would benefit the England national side. But why does he think this, and how can he know it would be beneficial?

The call for fewer foreign players in the Premier League is based on narrative and opinion – it is not an evidence based argument. The proportion of foreign players has steadily risen over the years and with this the England national team’s best achievement is reaching the semi final in 3 out of 24 major championships. However, we don’t know how England would have achieved if there were fewer foreign players in the Premier League. In experiments this is called the ‘counterfactual’. It is outcomes that could have happened but never did.

This thinking can be applied to almost anything. We don’t know if England would have won the World Cup if a handball decision had been given against Maradona. We don’t know if England would have beaten Argentina had David Beckham not been sent off. We can speculate about the outcomes and make guesses based on what we think. But we don’t actually know.

For all we know, foreign players in the Premier League have had an incredibly successful impact on the national team. Maybe, without them, England’s performances in major championships would have poorer. However, there is obviously another possibility. Maybe the influx of foreign players in the Premier League has had a catastrophic impact on the national side. Maybe England could have won the World Cup again since 1966 had more English players been given the chance to play in the Premier League. We will never know either way.

Greg Dyke’s plan of increasing English players in the Premier League from 30% to 40% is designed to revive English football. His methods include: introducing a quota on the number of foreign players allowed in a team, a reform of the loan system, and with Brexit looming, a stricter system for how visas are issued to players from outside of the European Union.

There are more foreign players and a wider spread of nationalities in the Premier League than any other league in the world. Like the World Cup, where 32 countries are represented by their national sides and watched by hundreds of millions around the world, the Premier League is massively diverse. The blend of EU and non-EU players is a credit to the opportunity provided by free movement of labour and capital.

The view of toughening the process of enabling foreign players to play in England and reducing the number allowed to play in the country matches a growing political belief nationally. There is a growth of skeptical and prejudicial attitudes towards foreigners and that they are taking something away from the country. This is mirrored in football and there is a belief foreigners are damaging our game.

Foreign players have contributed to making the Premier League the richest, and arguably best, league in the world. It is a cyclical effect. The foreign players help bring in increased advertising and global exposure which increases revenue. The money is then spent by clubs to attract the best talent from around the world – and the cycle continues. No longer do clubs look abroad for cheaper options – they look abroad because they can afford to buy the talent other countries offer with their players.

Fans of English clubs have a paradoxical relationship with foreign players. Any fan of an individual club will love the foreign players who play for their club – and will see no problem with the lower representation of English players. For example, Manchester City won the Premier League title in 2014 with only two English players frequenting in the starting eleven. However, City fans will rate, admire, and in some cases, worship their foreign players. However, when asked: are there too many foreign players in the Premier League? Most fans will probably answer “Yes”.

The same attitude reflects the belief system of English society. There is a schism between how people perceive foreigners and how they actually experience them. Most people will have had mainly positive experiences with foreigners living in their community – but then still subscribe to a wider national prejudice against immigration.

Blaming foreign players for the failures of the England national team is exactly the same as blaming foreign immigrants for lack of jobs and issues with wages in wider society. Interestingly, on the opening day of the 1992 Premier League season there were 242 players in starting line ups across 22 teams. Just 13 of these players, equating to 5%, were foreign. At this time, the England national side was no more successful than they were ten years later. Frank Lampard has said he believes foreign players enrich the English game and he became a better player as a result of playing with better players, regardless of the country they come from, because he had to constantly fight for his place in the team.

We have already looked in Living on the Dreams of Legends at how the FA should be developing English talent through better funding for grassroots football and by developing the steps clubs take after graduating players from their academies. There have been some successes with this – but England needs to fine tune the strategies and methods used to harness the talent our future players undoubtedly have.

The approach must be full of diversity and cater for all backgrounds in the identical way society must pool together the skills, knowledge and ability of those born in England – and those who have moved to make a life here.

Football, like society, is enriched by foreign diversity, and on the whole, these people offer the country far more than what they take.