When I was watching the World Cup, I couldn’t help noticing that England had a squad consisting entirely of players who played in the English Premier League. When I was a kid, this was never the case. In the 1980s there was Laurie Cunningham at Real Madrid, Luther Blissett at AC Milan, Mark Hateley at Monaco, Chris Waddle at Marseille and Gary Lineker at Barcleona.
Some attributed the late 1980s in particular as being a “talent drain” on the English top flight as players sought European football after English clubs were banned after Heysel. Yet well into the 1990s and long after the ban on English clubs had been lifted, players continued to further their careers abroad. Whether it was David Platt at Juventus, Paul Gascoigne at Lazio, Des Walker at Sampdoria, Paul Ince at Inter Milan or Steve McManaman at Real Madrid. All of whom were serving England internationals.
It is perhaps only following the turn of the century that the pattern was reversed with Owen Hargreaves at Bayern Munich and David Beckham & Michael Owen at Real Madrid being the notable exceptions to the rule. Ashley Cole retired from England duty shortly before finalising a move to Italian side Roma.
Darius Vassell playing in the Turkish Premier League doesn’t really count when he hadn’t played an England game in almost five years. Same applies for Emile Heskey in Australia. In fact, the only times we tend to see English players moving abroad now is in order to secure one final big pay day at the end of their careers.
Money: because what this all boils down to is the fact that the top flight in England is probably the best in the world and is definitely the most lucrative. There is a lack of financial incentive to move abroad simply because we now have a league that pays the highest wages. A league where even the most average of players can command more money than World Cup winning midfielder Sami Khedira currently earns at Real Madrid.
We have to find a way to dramatically increase the number of English players abroad. In an ideal world you would want them playing at Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but in reality there is no reason why that should happen anytime soon. However that is not to say that English players cannot enhance their experience (which in turn will help the national team) by playing for less glamourous clubs, provided they were competing at a certain level. If players can find clubs who are competing in European competitions, then that will provide a standard which would in normal circumstances benefit the player immeasurably.
When I heard Greg Dyke outlining his vision of top flight “B Teams” entering the football league pyramid, I was horrified by the breathtaking arrogance by which anyone could have believed that such proposals would ever be embraced. Yet with each World Cup, the frustrations behind the continual poor performances of the national side will eventually lead to such dangerous visions appearing to be less deplorable.
I have a more radical solution which I believe would address the core of this problem and eventually should lead to improving performances at international tournaments. It is potentially controversial, but if given a chance could perhaps lead to England one day winning a major global title again.
I would like to see English players effectively having their wages capped between the ages of 23 and 27. What it would amount to would be a form of national service, a form of “Lions Tax” which would impose a levy on the wages of all top flight English players between the ages of 23 and 27 years of age.
It would need to be a significant tax. We are familiar with the stories of players being fined amounts of money which sound huge to you and I, but in their world barely reflects a few hours work. I think a tax level of around 20% would be a good target to set in that even for a player earning £300,000 a week, handing over £60,000 would still be a noticeable amount. That would see such a player paying over £3m over the course of a year, and again this money would be paid towards what could be referred to as a “Lions Abroad Fund”.
The pot or fund of tax revenues would need revenues from other sources too and this could be achieved by taking a proportion of some of the revenue accumulated from TV revenue deals. The FA could ring-fence an agreed proportion of TV money for the purpose of securing this revenue stream to protect the long term interests of English football.
The fund would serve two purposes. It would top-up the wages of English players who play their football abroad. It would also be used to top-up the transfer fees for players who are leaving their domestic clubs after their 23rd birthday.
In theory it would also hopefully ensure that clubs were not discouraged from continuing to invest in their youth academies for fear of losing the players at less than their future potential worth. It should also ensure that clubs aren’t discouraged from investing in English players in their academies or that they would instead fill them up with youngsters from abroad.
However there is still the danger with such an idea is that you run the risk of incurring the wrath of the prima donna and potentially leading to a generation of England players conveniently retiring from international duty on their 23rd birthday. So in order to safeguard against this, the tax would be applied to the wages of players who are eligible to play for England, even in the event where they decided to reject the invitation.
Critics will argue that what I am proposing would probably be legally difficult to enforce, but I would counter such an argument by stating that other suggested proposals have also been fraught with legal minefields. Like the suggestion you could enforce a rule which guarantees a minimum number of English players in any match day squad. But such ideas would be implemented if it had the agreement from clubs who accepted that this was a solution for the wider interests of the national team.
I don’t accept that such a proposal will lead to improving the standards of the national team. If you restrict the best players from abroad from playing in the Premier League, all you will do is allow for an overall decline in standards. In time England’s UEFA coefficients would also fall and this would lead to a reduction in the number of places for English clubs in European competitions. Given time, it would be English champions playing for one spot in the Champions League with a journey that begins a few days into the start of July.
No fan of English football should want to see that nor should they support plans which will enable that to happen. We are very lucky to have such a competitive and entertaining top flight and the desire of everyone should be about how to raise the bar even higher. We should all have a striving desire for even greater excellence, the best players from around the world playing in our league.
Apart from anything else if you have the best players from around the world playing in England, that will have a positive effect on young English players in terms of training sessions and watching the talented imports at such close quarters. An education they can enhance further by experiencing football in different countries around Europe thus improving the standard of the national side further.
I think what I have proposed could form the basis of a wider strategy to get English players playing abroad again, but also believe it is far from the finished article. The percentage to be collected as a tax would be open to debate, not too much so as to potentially drive players from the profession, but enough so that it will be a noticeable amount (relatively speaking) to vanish from their salaries every month.
Deciding on the age parameters would also be something that would need to be looked at, but the intention would be so that you have the player plying their trade abroad during the first part of their peak years. They would then be free to return to England without restriction for the second half of their peak years and to wind down their careers wherever they should choose.
England deserves to have a national side which is competitive and holds its own on the national stage, and this is coming from a France fan. It is time to get English players playing abroad again and the English FA can make that happen by making it financially attractive for the players to do so. It is a salary cap in all but name, albeit one with a completely honourable objective. It may not necessarily deliver another World Cup, but it should ensure there will be a more competitive national side in the future.
It has to be worth a try. Tax the players who stay and reward the ones who move abroad.