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Identity crisis for Englands Premier

Published: November 16, 2007
Section: Sports


Perhaps its because Im one of those soccer geeks, but I completely agree with FIFAs move to limit the number of non-British players Premier League teams can field. Many years of watching soccer has convinced me that the balance of teams has gotten out of hand. That's why rules to regulate the number of players in a starting line-up is crucial.

In most ways the game has changed for the better over the past few years. But its one big loss is that few teams – particularly the big ones – now truly represent the town or city in which their stadium stands. They have become international companies whose owners and players often have little or no real connection with England, let alone the locality.

When I started watching soccer a few years ago, virtually every player was British, and at least half the players were locally born. An important statistic for any fan was the number of local-born players on the team he supported;

it gave him immense pride that the team truly represented his own locality. It used to be that each team was representative of ones English home town;

now, though, the league is dominated by hugely talented players with unpronounceable names, from other countries. Lets count the number of foreign players in the Premiership;

there are more than 125 registered foreign soccer players, including many famous ones, such as Carlos Tevez, Didier Drogba, and Fernando Torres. However, as someone who felt he really belonged in the old days, I have to ask: Is winning all that matters now?

Arsenal is the biggest offender. It boasts of being British owned, yet rarely fields a starting lineup with even one British player. Results apart, Id like to know if older Gunners fans actually feel more a part of the club than they did in their youth? Is it not somewhat unreal to be cheering on a team whose only local connection is that it plays in the London area?

The Arsenal team used to include true locals like Jimmy Bloomfield (born in Kensington), Len Wills (Hackney) and Danny Clapton and Vic Groves (both from Stepney). It wasnt until 1990 that the first foreign player – Swedish international Anders Limpar – came to Highbury. And the floodgates didnt open until the mid-1990s with the arrival of Dennis Bergkamp, Nicolas Anelka and Patrick Vieira.

Now Premier League fans are all for having foreign players in the English game – particularly world-class stars. It has elevated the English league to the best on the planet, but the league has lost some of its identity. Superstars may be wonderful role models for young English players, but if the kids cant get interested the team because of them, how are they ever going to make it to the very top themselves?

I would much prefer to see clubs follow the Manchester United example, and blend the best of British and overseas talent. Coach Sir Alex Ferguson certainly has his faults, but right through the glory years I cannot remember a United team taking the field without at least four or five British players – virtually all produced by the Old Trafford youth scheme.

For England's sake, Arsenal needs a little adjustment. Its just that Arsene Wenger has discovered a veritable beehive of talent in the most bizarre of places and managed to strike gold by importing it and blending it all together. You cant argue with that as a policy for success – but is it right for the English game?

At one point Chelsea under Jose Mourinho went to virtually the same lengths as Arsenal in dumping British players in favour of overseas superstars. Now, however, Chelsea can boast at least half a team of Brits, with John Terry, Frank Lampard, Wayne Bridge, Shaun Wright-Phillips and the two Coles.

So whats the problem with a little nudge from the authorities to ensure that clubs dont go too far, as Arsenal have done? And who knows, that nudge might just bring some new talent through that could make the England international team a real force, rather than perpetual underachiever in the World Cup.