Imports : Hurting or enhancing global football leagues?

In the first season of the Premier League, Dion Dublin broke his leg. In part to cover for his absence, Sir Alex Fergusson brought the French player Eric Cantona over from Leeds United.
Manchester United, with Cantona as the catalyst, won the inaugural trophy and delivered United’s first title in 26 years.
The squad of 1992/93 boasted one Russian, a Dane and Cantona. The rest of the squad was from the British Isles. In many ways, Cantona is the headliner for what happened next. Hardly the first foreigner to play in England, he came at a time when TV money started to rain down on the league, from a drizzle, to a shower, to today’s monsoon. Bringing more than just goals, he showed how continental flamboyance and headlines could open up the game, making it more tactical, elegant and global.
Today, United’s squad’s ratio of foreigners to locals has flipped. Eleven English players fill out the squad of around 40. It would be a fascinating fantasy battle to pitch Mourinho’s United against Fergusson’s, and it would be a close run match.
But overall, it is a given that the squads filling out the Premier League this season are vastly superior to those filled purely with Home Country players.
As leagues around the world start to crank up their profile, they all face the same pressures as those experienced in England 15 years ago. China, Australia, the USA are the most obvious examples of newer leagues that have to face the vexed question of whether foreign players are hurting or helping the local game.
English football might have improved, but are there other matrices through which a healthy league can be judged. Consistently over the past three seasons, English players have made up less than of a third of most match day teams. Scottish players, who used to be heavily represented in the 80s and 90s, have all but disappeared.
The economics are simple enough. England is engaged in a vicious cycle. Local players of the highest calibre are in short supply, because of the influx of foreign players. This causes inflations, which means that most teams are looking for cut-price deals in Europe or South America. Which limits opportunities for local players. And so on.
The most common complaint about this imbalance is two-fold. Firstly, the Premier League is not representative of its nation. How can it be the English Premier League when an English manager has never won it? When teams regularly run out onto the field with no one called Smith or Jenkinson in the squad?
The second problem is that the national team suffers. It is no coincidence that the English squad has gone from international competitors –coming third at Italia 90- to laughing stocks. Aside from a creaking Wayne Rooney, it is tough to identify a single super star in the English team.
For the nascent leagues around the world, they need to make tough decisions. England serves as an extreme example of what happens when the floodgates are opened. The US, China, Australia and all the other countries who have been in a cycle of re-branding and rebuilding their leagues need to decide on whether they need the shot of adrenaline that foreigners provide or whether they should just breath deeply and start small.
China has recently been making news with its high-profile raids on European and South American players. The clubs are supported by big business interests and by the governors of their cities. China is working hard to make its league competitive, and foreign players are seen as an expensive necessity.
Everything in China is political. Chinese excellence in all fields is of vital importance to the ruling class, as international recognition helps them to justify their vision both at home and abroad. When they publicly fail, it is a source of humiliation, as though the entire edifice of free market, totalitarian rule is not the perfect political organism.
The Chinese national team is a disaster. Last year, a country of well over a billion people could not find 11 players to overcome war-torn Syria. There were country-wide protests and much trolling of the Chinese FA.
The government reacted immediately by limiting the number of foreign players allowed in the match day squad from four to three. The official line on this was that foreign players are limiting the number of chances given to Chinese players, especially where the most skill is needed, in the forward line.
So obviously there is a problem here. The foreign players are crowding out the locals. There is not enough depth of clubs in China to help professional players get properly blooded. One argument as to why English players can actually thrive is that there are over 90 professional teams across four divisions. China currently has 16 teams, which means there is a maximum of 40 attacking spots across the entire country. Even with the new rule, all of these positions can be filled by   foreigners.
On the one hand, China needs these foreign players, both in the long and short term. Bigger names help fill stadiums and raise viewership. This means more money at the gate, inevitably bigger TV deals and more sponsors. More money means clubs can invest in youth and can bring in bigger foreign names and coaches. It becomes a positive snowball of success.
In the short term, these players can raise the standards of the existing squads. Playing alongside Carlos Tevez or Oscar helps players to understand how true champions train and work. They become positive role models.
The MLS in America seems to be a case of how to get this right. Last year, there were more American players in the league than at any point since it got started in 1993.
They still invest in tent-pole players, but these tend to come in at the latter stages of their careers. They do get bums on seats, but because of the rules about salary caps, only one player per team can make the money big enough to drag players across the Atlantic. Starting with David Beckham, these imports arrive with impeccable pedigree, but sometimes dodgy knees. Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Thierry Henry all came and were used as a role models for the largely American squad. With these legends imparting their professional advice, the MLS has made some advances, while the National Team reaps the benefit of the improving qualities of the league players.
The Chinese, American and English leagues are all very different. There are too many variables to make a strong argument either for or against the recruitment of foreign players. But if sport is about the best, then the evidence seems to suggest a mercenary or two can be of benefit.

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