Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Mon 21 May 2007

Foreign Legions

How proud I felt recently as I drove to work, listening to the radio. Three English teams had qualified for the Champions League semi-finals with every chance of an all-English Final.

What a shame that the pride which was enveloping my whole body at a staggering rate came to a shuddering halt just as quickly. You see, it occurred to me that Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea weren't English teams in the true sense because the vast majority of their players were born elsewhere. English clubs, maybe, but not teams.

As anyone will tell you, the modern game is a truly international one, bursting at the seems with star talent from all four corners of the world. The debate about whether an abundance of foreign players in our leagues is a good thing continues relentlessly, but when you look at the facts it's quite startling just how insignificant English players are becoming in their own country - particularly in the Premiership.

Just over a year ago, Alan Pardew (then manager of West Ham) openly criticised Arsene Wenger for fielding an Arsenal side in the Champions League that featured no English players. Wenger replied by calling Pardew a racist, yet even as this season ended Arsenal could boast only seven Englishmen in their squad of thirty-six - the joint-lowest number for any team in the Premiership.

So does it work in Wenger's favour to have a squad where English is just one of eighteen nationalities represented (and in such small numbers)? Some People Are On The Pitch decided to find out...

The Premiership
In terms of trophies won, Arsenal have nothing to show for this season or the last, yet an appearance in last season's Champions League Final, a Premiership title back in 2004 and numerous runs to the latter stages of the FA Cup all suggest quality gets you somewhere.

The same can be said of Liverpool. Winners of the Champions League in 2005 and finalists this year, winners of the FA Cup in 2006 and always a certainty to finish in the top four of the Premiership, Englishmen account for just over three in every ten in their squad.

But gaining success through foreign purchases isn't necessarily the way forward. Fulham have fought hard to avoid relegation from the Premiership in recent seasons, yet English players make up less than 22% of their roster. This season they won just one of their nineteen away games and a little over a third of their games at home.

Fulham, however, may just be a bad example - a team that's bought the wrong foreign players. Buying (or at least developing) English players has brought about the wrong outcome for Sheffield United, Watford and West Ham. All three can claim at least 60% of their squad are English, and yet they've all shared a season-long effort to avoid being on the relegation trapdoor when it mattered.

During the 2006/07 season, the overall picture showed that out of 653 squad players in the Premiership, only 282 were English. That accounts for about 43% in total and whichever way you look at it, that's got to be to the detriment of the national side. Yes, many of the foreign players coming to England bring with them the skills, work ethic and commitment that can rub off on the home-grown talent that needs such influence, but when Steve McLaren tells his team to play 'the English way', how many will actually know what he means?

Perhaps it would help to know where all the foreign players in the Premiership are coming from. The answer: seventy different countries. That's more nationalities than are represented in the top leagues of Spain, France, Germany or Italy.

Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales aside, Ireland, France, Australia, the Netherlands, Spain, USA and Portugal are all big providers of players for the English top flight. Look further afield and some countries that barely even registered on the football ten years ago also show strongly. Jamaica, Senegal, Iceland and Finland can currently claim to make a healthy contribution to many squads in a bigger way than they ever have before.

And if it's sheer novelty value that lights your candle, you'll be wanting to know where the most obscure homelands are for some of the Premiership's playing multitude. If that's the case, look no further than Oman, Grenada and Sierra Leone.

But how does the Premiership match up with La Liga, Ligue 1, Serie A or the Bundesliga? How much do they rely on foreign players to bring success?



La Liga
Spain has been arguably the most successful country over the last few years in terms of providing the finalists for the Champions League and UEFA Cup, and yet it can claim over 63% of its players are from Spain itself - that's 20% more than the Premiership.

As for the number of nationalities represented in its teams' squads, well that's only 41 compared to 70 in the Premiership. Naturally enough, Spanish-speaking countries are among the biggest suppliers of players, although such novelties as Canada and Equatorial Guinea are also represented to a lesser extent.

Looking at the most successful teams of late, Barcelona have the lowest proportion of home-based players (just under 36%) and they're the 2006 La Liga champions. Seville follow a similar approach when it comes to foreign players. They've got lots of them, but it hasn't stopped them winning the UEFA Cup for the second year running or challenging Barca and Real Madrid for this year's league title.

The pattern matches England at the foot of the table, too. Two of the bottom three, Gimnastic and Real Sociedad, have a squad that's about three-quarters Spanish, but between them are Celta Vigo whose squad is about half Spanish, half foreign. That's more than twice as many as their equivalent, Fulham, in England.



Serie A
Milan have been at the forefront of Italian football over the last few years. They played Liverpool in the Champions League final of 2005 and will do so again in the 2007 Final. They've also done well to reach third place in Serie A with two games remaining although the 32 point gap between themselves and top-of-the-table Inter is, to be reasonable, one they'll struggle to close.

This season, Milan can claim the largest number of Italians playing in a top-division side, but then they have the largest squad too - a whopping forty-six players. It works out that their squad is about two-thirds home-grown, which happens to be on a par with Ascoli and Messina who are already relegated to Serie B.

Torino's squad is 95% Italian, yet they've been struggling to avoid relegation until recently. In addition, Reggina have dropped into the bottom three and their squad is almost 88% home-grown.

Of the nationalities accounted for in Serie A squads, South America provides its share with Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile all prominent. France also appears high on the list with a number of central and eastern European nations, while at the other end of the scale, Siena can claim to have made the bold move of securing the services of someone from Liechtenstein. You won't be surprised to hear they could still be relegated too...



Bundesliga
Germany's success in European club competitions is no longer the formality it used to be and when it does come, it's difficult to tell who'll achieve it.

Of those teams that have recently reached the latter stages of the Champions League or the UEFA Cup (and indeed those near the top of the Bundesliga at present), their squads are more or less a fifty-fifty split between Germans and foreigners. A fair and even split, perhaps, but one which isn't bringing them much in the way of glory on the continent.

Of the three teams to be relegated to the 2nd Bundesliga this season, Alemania Aachen stands out as they have the highest proportion of German players in any squad - 72%. The other two teams going down - Borussia Mönchengladbach and Mainz both have a half-and-half split, more or less.

Back in the top division, the Bundesliga draws on 59 countries outside of Germany for its playing staff. Brazil is again a big provider, but no corner of Europe is seemingly left unsearched as it strives to unearth the stars of tomorrow. Why, there's even an Englishman on the list - one Owen Hargreaves of Bayern Munich... but for how much longer?



Ligue 1
Finally we come to France and here's where all logic seems to go out of the window where foreign players are concerned. At the top of the tree, as has been the case for some time now, are this season's champions Lyon. Their squad is about two-thirds French - slightly above average for the whole league - yet only seven nationalities are represented amongst them.

Those figures are almost exactly the same as for Sedan, yet they've just been relegated. In third place at the moment with one game remaining are Lens. Their squad is 55% French and have eleven nationalities on their roster - figures which almost exactly match Troyes, one of the other teams dropping down to Ligue 2 next season.

In French football, the concept of a 'foreign' player is perhaps less significant than anywhere else in Europe as even those that were born overseas generally come from French-speaking countries anyway. It's not uncommon to see squad members deriving from places like Algeria, Cameroon, Senegal and the Ivory Coast, so maybe that explains the middling success of those teams from Ligue 1 in Europe?



Summary
So what can we tell from all this statistical analysis? In short, the French are struggling because most of their best talent is playing abroad in places like England and Spain. English clubs are better off because of that and the influx of players from many other parts of the world, yet the national team aren't benefiting from it.

Spanish clubs are fiercely loyal towards developing talent from their own country and have worked it to their advantage, but once again the national team continue to struggle. The Germans, conversely, have a strong national team at the moment yet their clubs can't find a winning formula no matter how many foreign players they employ.

Then there are the Italians. World champions and providers of some of the best club sides in Europe such as Milan, they follow the same approach as Spain and yet have worked it to their advantage.

A model, therefore, for every discerning country in the world to follow, and they achieved all that as well as a considerable amount of fan violence and corruption at the highest level. You've got to admire the Italians...

(BONUS MATERIAL! For more graphs and stuff relating to this article, click here to download a PDF containing all the info you need.)

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