THE HIDDEN TAX ON DOMESTIC TALENT
If you had your choice between paying £20 million for Ashley "Cashley" Cole, or one-tenth as much for Gael Clichy, which would you choose? Cashley may be English, but he's definitely not ten times better than his french counterpart at Arsenal. He's definitely ten times a better marketing tool. If you saw Clichy on the street, you probably wouldn't recognize him, but somehow, through some slick marketing and the irresistible force that is the English FA PR machine, we've been fooled into thinking that Cashley Cole is the best left back in the world.
Recently, FIFA President Sepp Blatter and his counterpart Michel Platini of UEFA, have publicly expressed a desire to limit the number of foreign players at club level.
Ostensibly the reason is to protect the quality of available players for the various national teams and at face value seems like a good idea. But let's just examine this proposition, and see if can't determine if this is the true motivation.
Since the advent of the Bosman rule ("HOW THE BOSMAN STOLE EUROPEAN FOOTBALL", September 7th, 2006 entry on this blog), the movement of European players across borders has been unabated and the face of European football has been altered considerably. You could scarcely identify a club's nationality today by the nationalities of its players. Recently, in a match between Juventus and Inter Milan in Italy, Roberto Mancini saw fit to field not a single Italian player in his line-up, whereas his counterpart from Turin fielded seven. Guess who's 8 points further ahead in the Serie A table?
Yet somehow Italy found a way to win the World Cup in 2006, thus calling into question the assumption that a country where the best teams have little domestic talent, cannot compete internationally. Blatter's argument is even more absurd when you consider that the national team of France in 2000, fielded scarcely any players from their domestic league, and had no problem winning the European Championships.
So is it really a question of protecting the quality of the national teams, or is it something else? To answer this, you have to do like Woodward and Bernstein and follow the money.
It's an open secret in the business of football that there's a hidden tax on domestic talent. A few years ago, in the throws of their era of galacticos, now disgraced Real Madrid President, Florentino Perez, put a $100M price tag on Raul.
Not because he was $30M better than Zidane, or $45M better than Figo, but because he's a good domestic player in Spain. Nobody in their right mind would pay $100M for Raul, and as such, you never saw anyone - not even Chelski - shell out that kind of money for him. The price tag reflects an important maxim in professional football - Raul's value to his own team is far greater than it would be on the European market, because in most of the market he wouldn't be a "domestic" star.
Domestic talent can create loyalty to a club. Chivas Guadalajara and Atletic Bilbao have shown that it is possible to compete, strictly with domestic players. It's always been an issue in Spain. Espaynol - that other team in Barcelona - was created as a club restricted to Spanish players (hence the name and Catalan spelling thereof), unlike their Catalan neighbors who were actually founded by a Swiss man. In theory, a team that restricts itself to domestic players could engender the loyalty of the players themseleves, something that is an all but a forgotten concept in the more cosmopolitan big clubs of modern football. But they would pay heavy price for it today. Because in the world of modern football there's a hidden tax on domestic players, and is one of the reasons why some teams have decided to bypass domestic talent altogether.
So who stands to benefit from this hidden tax on domestic talent? Who benefits from restricting the flow of internationals across European and now continental borders? For starters, domestic talent.
The player union in England, overwhelmingly English, is notoriously stingy about allowing internatioal talent to play in England (a player is supposed to have played in 75% of their country's internationals in the last year, and that national team has to have averaged a FIFA ranking of at least 70). They can't do anything about European players - they are free to come and go without incumberance - that's down to the European Union. But non-European internationals are another story.
The players union in the UK seek to keep their opportunities to break into domestic clubs plentiful, so the obvious solution is to restrict the flow of internationals. (http://sport.independent.co.uk/football/news/article3233386.ece) Domestic players won't have to worry as much about competing with better players from countries with worse economies, for whom a significant pay cut against inflated English transfer fees and salaries, is a signficant pay raise as compared to what they get at home. Furthermore, the harder it becomes to get foreign talent, the more expensive it becomes to get and retain domestic talent, and thus their pockets are lined again.
How about FIFA and UEFA? What's in it for them? Well, as we all know, there are two competitions in the World that are considered the most important - the World Cup and the European Championships. Why? Because we still believe that a team full of the best, say French players, is better than the best domestic french team. Nevermind that best players in French clubs are not French. But what about when there are no domestic players in the best club teams? Could the Italian national team beat Inter of Milan? Could the England team beat Arsenal?
You see where I'm going with this?
If the trend continues, very soon the perceived best teams in the world will not be the national teams - they will be the club teams that can claim this distinction. And then, why would anyone bother about the World Cup or the European Championships if the best soccer in the world is played in the Champions League? Very soon the luster comes off the international competitions, and with it the interest. And when the interest goes, so too does the money.
Argentine and Brazilian players are the most common export, with Brazilians in teams as far away as the Ukraine and the Far East. But other nationalities, such as those from the African continent, and eastern european countries, are fast filling the rosters of European teams, across the continent, not only because their players are cheaper, but because they are better. Where else in the world would someone like Michael Essien make less than Joe Cole? It's strange, because in most European countries, as in the US, entire industries absolutely depend on immigration, so why not European football as well?
So what's the solution?
Open up everything to anyone. The solution to not having enough home-grown players is not to reduce the overall quality of the league, but to improve the quality of the players. If Argentina, Brazil, Holland and France produce the best players in the world on a regular basis, then why not study their recruitment and training techniques to determine if there is a flaw in the way your country produces players?
There is a myth that these kids spontaneously generate on the streets and walk into the biggest clubs in the country. It doesn't work that way. The art of finding talent in South America, particularly in Brazil and Argentina, is a pain-staking process of attrition that looks at all the qualities of a player, and ensures that any one who makes it to the top level has all the required skills and characterisitics to add value, and not detract it.
Can the same be said, for example, for England? How many Francis Jeffers have we had to suffer through before we get to a Wayne Rooney? How many Kieron Dyers before we get to a Steven Gerrard. And would any other country in the world go ga-ga over the likes of Joey Barton, Alan Smith and Lee Bowyer? Only in England, my friends, only in England.
Take Alan Smith - I heard an Englishman (of course) the other day on a podcast claim that Smith's versatility has worked against him as striker. In other words, if he weren't such a good winger or midfielder, he'd be used more as a striker. As if Smith is as good as, say, Louis Saha, but he's just too valuable as a midfielder to waste as a striker. As the English like to say, that's bollocks.
Smith's versatility is THE ONLY reason he still has a career. In most countries, a striker with his scoring rate would be in the 3rd division. In his career Smith has made 248 club appearances and scored 45 goals, earned 20 caps and scored once. Steven Gerrard - strictly a midfielder - has scored 50 goals in 281 appearances at club level and 12 goals in 62 caps - you do the math. But because Smith is an Englishman playing in England, he's gone from Leeds, to Man U, to Newcastle without earning his keep as a striker or midfielder - and has changed positions regularly with each team he plays for.
In Brazil, you're a flavor of the month (if you're lucky) before the next phenom is waiting in the tunnel to take your place. It's one reason why their players are so determined to succeed. They will play almost anywhere in the world to make a good living, even in the Ukraine. They know what they've been through to make it, and it would take a lot more than some crap weather, crap food, hard fouls and the Cyrillic alphabet to keep them down.
Not so for English players. All they have to do is be English, and a marginally good player, and they can make a great living raising and then dashing the hopes of English supporters across the country. At the end of the day, English players can't cut it in England because they're not good enough, but as I've said many times, that they're not playing for the big clubs is not what makes the English players so bad.
Anyway, all the foreign talent they've had in Italy didn't seem to hurt their World Cup campaign in 2006, so why do the English need this special consideration? It isn't the case yet in Italy or Spain that there are so few good domestic players available to play for the national team, but if they don't qualify for a major competition, you'll hear the exact same rubbish from them. Because they, like the English, don't produce as many good players as the French, Brazilians and Argentines.
If UEFA and FIFA are honest about it, the real problem they have with the movement of foreign players is the big advantage the club competitions will eventually have over national team competitions, in claiming which produces the highest levels of play, and thus garnering the most interest.
That, and the money that goes with the biggest stars, is the reason they want the clubs to restrict the quality of their players by making quotas. They don't want the clubs to get too good by not limiting foreign players, because pretty soon people will care more about club competitions than international ones, and when that happens, the balance of power (and money) in world football tips in favor of the clubs.
At the end of the day, follow the money, and you'll see why so much nonsense seems to be coming from such high places as Zurich and Nyon.