The FA Chairman's plan to save English football
The FA Chairman's great plan to save English football.

Monday, FA chairman Greg Dyke outlined proposed new FA rules that would severely restrict the number of non-EU players to two players (and only Premier League teams could sign non-EU players to begin with) and non-homegrown players teams can feature on their roster. 

The rules ascertain to "homegrown players" being a club's responsibility from the time the player turns 15. It would likely allow the FA to close loopholes that Premier League clubs used for years to sign underage players from abroad and play them in their "academies" and either sell them off, or play them, instead of the youngsters that might have been at the club slightly before they hit puberty. 

It allowed Premier League clubs (and other English clubs) to do at a youth level, what they do at the senior level--avoid trying their hardest to find and recruit promising youth players from within their own borders and fully polish them into skilled, aspirant footballers who connected culturally with the core supporters and the culture around them. In part, one part of the fun of international football that had been missing in 'football's birthplace' has been the cultural and political arguments over potential selections of players. It links football's ultimate prize--the World Cup--to core cultural foundations of people--ones that form political identities, parties, and football clubs that can sometimes represent those ideologies or culturalisms. But at the end of the day, those culturalisms and core identities make derbies matter, and create real pressure for the players to perform, and obviously real pressure for security at stadia to keep a balance between having a strong, meaningful atmosphere where ultras and barrabravas play a major role (and turn the stadium into a place for community) and the dark side of it involving criminal organizations extorting teams, fans being beaten at or near stadia, people going to stadia to get intoxicated and look for trouble, and players and team personnel being kidnapped. beaten, injured, or threatened. 

Somewhere in England, this balance got lost. No mention of "extreme politics" is here because outside of England, the political identities of football clubs at their core can make for derbies that are compelling. And like with some matches in the United States, Israel, Brazil, Chile, Poland, Argentina, Uruguay, Serbia, Italy, and elsewhere, local histories could make matches of whatever kind carry more meaning than being 'only a game'. It's a balance that can inspire young boys and girls to continue to train on their own, gain more skills, and aspire to one day represent their boyhood clubs or play for their country with a legitimate hope of winning a World Cup in each cycle. But it can only happen if there are few foreign players at the clubs.

The FA's non-EU player restrictions do not go far enough, because many Premier League teams sign lots of foreigners with EU passports. These might be French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Croatian, Greek, Swedish or Dutch players, or dual-national players with an EU passport who are representing non-EU nations. In Asia, it might be okay to have a restriction that benefits Asian players over players from elsewhere because it builds a market for players who were traditionally undervalued on their own continent. But Premier League clubs who are reaping the benefits of more than a £2 billion TV deal, and are playing to increasingly global audiences, are under great pressure to continue as they have, and be competitive in a UEFA Champions League whose payouts could make or break a team's budget. 

And so, even as these new rules play out, those clubs will likely replace the non-EU foreigners with those from the EU and keep English footballers in a state of being "not good enough" because those "European stars" will be happiest and most valued when the roster is full of players (at different positions) closer to that star's quality. And fans will still be left unable to have players they can relate to, and messages of "emphasis on development" as advocated by the FA and in magazines based in England and the rest of the UK would be seen as disingenuous by those who lived a large portion of their lives in England (or Wales, or Northern Ireland, or Scotland, or Ireland). And that may continue to disengage English fans from their national team. 

The Premier League's quality inflation by clubs buying (at above market rates) foreign players and giving them larger wages than they would have received on the continent or in the Americas. The high wages those players are paid (and a lot of it is thanks to TV money and ticket prices which price many die-hards out of the games) also inflates what the English (or British) players are paid, even though those players may be nowhere near as technically capable as the foreign stars they are playing with. This is equivalent to what is expected of Middle Eastern (UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia), and Chinese teams--not European or South American teams whose home countries' national teams have actually won the World Cup in the last 49 years. And no team (not even England) has won the World Cup with a foreign coach leading the team.

And so, severe restrictions on all foreign players (without any concession to EU nationals), even with coaches, need to be put in place. A restriction of no more than four to five foreign players total in the entire squad whose numbers could exceed thirty players (on the senior squad) and no more than two to three foreigners in each of level of the "development squad" (academy).

This is not an argument for native-born English or Welsh players only, or else this becomes an exclusive exercise in xenophobia and nationalism. There can and should be cases for footballers whose families moved to the UK and England looking for work, and whose purposes for being in the UK are not solely in the frame of "their child could pursue his dream as a professional footballer". If the young player has lived in the country his or her entire life, or had been living in the country since the time he or she had been able to form his or her first memory of events in his or her life (likely around the time the child turns five), he or she would be considered a native born player. Any player who is an English (or Welsh) citizen and elects to represent a national team that is not England or Wales (or Scottish or Northern Irish) in international competition would also not count as a foreign player. There should also be at least one foreign player slot dedicated to non-English or non-Welsh (in the case of Swansea, Cardiff City, etc.) players, to promote the inclusion of British players in this new foreign player formula.

At this point, the players could still very well be overpaid, and play with the care of those who remained in the game only because of the money. That is the nature of the Premier League's TV daal (and payouts to and revenues of Championship teams). The new English-oriented Premier League (in terms of players and culutre) may draw poor ratings abroad and at home, and significantly change how English fans saw their teams in the UEFA Champions League--causing their notion of "playing in the Champions League (Europa League)" to change to playing in the Qualifying Rounds. Teams would have to sell off a lot of players fans got to know because they are no longer pulling in the revenues they once did, and no longer dream of the "next great foreign manager running their team." 

It is said that in order to escape from a hole, you have to first stop digging. Stripping away the excesses of the 1990s-2010s era of English football would likely give English teams toward the top of the pyramid a better sense of what their footballing problems are. It might mean that it would be easier for Britons of African, Caribbean, or South Asian origin to get managing opportunities at clubs. It might mean that the FA is willing to listen to people like Tom Byer, whose work has helped Japan and Australia dramatically improve their international football fortunes in a period of only 10 to 15 years (something that would take at least two and half decades to pull off. It would also involve a conscientious choice everyone in the English footballing community would have to make to valuing physicality, speed, and directness alone, to valuing technical ability, creativity, improvisational (and varied) play--and provide better competition for emerging young footballers. It might start to get teams to expand the areas from which they look for players, rather than stick to the neighborhoods they know or recruit from abroad. 

It would also change the sense around English (or British) football from one in which revolved around pessimism and reactionary impulses to "better times" (and hence the Against Modern Football movement) to one in English people, native-born 'minorities', and immigrants could all rally behind in their own way. It might connect the game between all levels of English society once again, and bring a sense of optimism to national team play. Clubs would make money by selling players to countries and teams looking to buy, knowing that they can always replace from within their Fuerzas Basicas, academies, or canteras. It would eventually allow foreign player restrictions to be eased eventually (not to where they are now)--because they can afford to save for complementary players or luxury signings who aren't expected to form the core of the team. 

Other questions in the FA proposal have revolved around tying players to contracts at 15, when many of the best clubs in the world field academy sides as young as 8 or 9, and adding a scholastic component to the professional academies which would give kids a better education than they expected at no cost to them or their families (one which they feel like they can either go to university or apprentice in a skilled trade and feel like they can do something if their football career does not go as well as the players had hoped). There are also philosophical and tactical questions to be covered, and questions on teaching tactics, certain drills, or when to start playing competitive matches. But that is for another day. 

Let us celebrate that someone in a powerful position at the FA is trying to do something to start to fix England's crumbling football foundation. This fight will be a long fight, and Greg Dyke may receive pushback from Premier League clubs over this. The proposals put out there may be thrown out before they get started. The proposals may not be strong enough. The proposals could be overbearing and overly nationalist. There may also be no guarantee that the long time and money needed to enforce these proposals and bear fruit. But the fruit it may bear will taste sweeter and taste more authentic than any of the plastic, expensive "designer" fruit currently bandied about in the top levels of English football. And its one that will ultimately allow English football to proudly and positively serve (and be a voice for) the people who live and work everyday in England. 

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