Brits Abroad

By Gary Hartley  |  15 Jan 2015

British football has a perplexing relationship with globalisation.

On the one hand, the great and good of the game, from the FA to the PFA, seem to embrace it rabidly, and no wonder: the maximum freedom to make profits, attract sponsorship and maximise salaries and retirement packages is all well and good for them.

Yet it’s the mixing of that free-market evangelism with public utterances about ‘foreign imports’ and bleeding-heart concerns for the oldest chestnut in the book of fruity phrases, ‘the future of the national game’, that seems at best odd, at worst, totally bloody stupid.

I suppose you can’t judge too harshly the pace of change within a football culture that’s been significantly influenced by a Wing Commander, but it’s a very select group of British pros flying high these days, and that’s just the nature of a beast that’s too far down the globalised route to turn about. Given this reality, there’s an urgent need for British footballers to simply get out more. Out of these borders, that is.

They’re not really doing it in any kind of numbers to approach calling it a trend, though, and it begs the question as to whether this is all down to an innate disbelief at bureaucratic level that British players can leave these lands and thrive. If so, it’s a fallacy. Britain took football to the world, it’s in us; and while no-one would advocate a return to those paternalistic values, tapping into a little of the pioneer spirit could go a long way.

Those that stand to benefit most from tasting the cuisine of elsewhere are neither the cream of their generation, with all options available to them; nor, at the bottom-feeding end of things, are they the hardy souls that scour the far-flung leagues of the planet, armed with a CV that lists a few over-egged achievements in small English towns and in search of anyone who’ll give them a professional game. No, these guys are sorted either way.

When Bale now, and Beckham in his day, come out and talk about broadening cultural horizons it ultimately rings somewhat hollow. It’s all very well for the most coveted players around; they can just move wherever’s best for all those monetary things, then fly in a crisp-vowelled butler or a male voice choir to closet themselves in an idealised ‘home from home’ if they so wish. It’s extremely doubtful whether a Beckham Powerpoint presentation on Spanish cultural norms, in Spanish, would act as anything other than a formal sign-off for the coup de grace kick in the ribs of the universal Brit Abroad.

We shouldn’t take too much notice either of the Ashley Cole types, the late-career cultural converts talking righteously about something they’d unlikely have considered at their peak. Nor is Spurs’ Eric Dier an ideal example here: he was in Portugal anyway; he just had to make a decision to stay when his parents were heading back, which probably wasn’t too hard a decision for a 16-year-old to make, all things considered.

It’s the middle men – the not excellent, but unequivocally good players – that can win big by refusing to sit comfortably. Micah Richards is a prime example. Strong, quick, schooled on Futsal (an obvious technical win for the British import economy, incidentally), he’s quite simply a very good player, even if no-one seems to have decided on his best position just yet.

But don’t worry about Micah; he’s doing fine now. After a couple of seasons in the wilderness at Manchester City, he’s putting in typically solid shifts in Serie A and the Europa League for Fiorentina and, by all accounts, very much enjoying his new surroundings. He’s even seeking a stay beyond the end of his current season-long loan.

An interesting aside in a recent interview with Richards provided a hint that a continued foreign influx to the Premier League might, conversely, be just the thing that inspires something of a cultural renaissance among the middle men: James Milner is apparently learning Spanish – the dressing room’s dominant lingo. It could be argued, of course, that he should have been given the basics at the very start of his career.

Talking to people about this piece, the general response has been: “But it’s about the wages, innit.” I’m not prepared to believe, however, that all young footballers are such short-term thinkers; certainly, it’s an idea that wouldn’t be entertained if a a culture of medium-term planning was encouraged in academies and feeder clubs.

Waiting on the bench of the bench of a 50-man squad for the wage packet that your club’s Godot might one day bestow upon you is more likely to see you playing for Dagenham & Redbridge in two or three years’ time, picking up the last pro wages before the subsidy of a more conventional day job. No disrespect intended to the Daggers, of course; it’s just that they’re a club rather better at scouting from below, than dealing with the burst bubbles of those taking a splash at the end of the Premier League log flume.

It’s not just about getting games. More qualitative, dare I say, stylistic decisions may be just as likely to play a role. They’re dirty words in British football, certainly, but ones that Sporting Lisbon’s Ryan Gauld dared to openly regard.

One of a clutch of fine players recently brought to maturity by Dundee United, Gauld quickly decided that he didn’t fancy the first team-fringe heel-kicking and Football League loans that would likely come with a move to the kind of club that might be attracted by the blessed/cursed/oxymoronic tag “Mini Messi”. In fact, he didn’t really see his game being at all suited to the dominant approaches seen on the pitches of his country, let alone the one down south. He’s now making Sporting Lisbon’s first team squads ahead of schedule, and Scotland’s too.

His lack of enthusiasm for turning out in the Premier League may well change with time; he may develop the cynicism-resistant swerving balance and diminutive brutishness that the actual-but-still-quite-mini Messi has, and thus equipped, return to these shores and provide the final death-knells for Wing Commander Reep’s conceptions of how to play the game.

Of course, who’s to say that after starring abroad, our adventurous heroes might not make a glorious return, and instead arrive ingloriously back on that bench – albeit this time with pay packet pocketed? Well, it’s possible, but it’s not really worth talking about worst-case scenarios years ahead when you’re still struggling with the first step onto the runway.

Few would question that the standard of British coaching is on a rapid upward curve. Hell, there’s a Scot second in command at Valencia. But change – in both academic and pastoral education – will be needed if improved technique coincides with a will to export it to the rest of the lonely planet when it’s not particularly recognised at domestic club level.

It will take a sort of ‘positive negativity’ to embrace the flip-side of globalisation in a way that will get excellent, but not exceptional, British talent playing the quantities of high-level first team football required to stop all the fretting about the future. The kind of thinking, that is, which inspired Glenn Hoddle to establish his Spanish academy in the hope of inspiring league club ‘drop-outs’ to test the benefits of a new start and change of scenery.

As with almost everything, catching our future-creators as young as possible is going to be the key thing. An increased focus on learning languages in academies and, maybe, some form of ‘cultural education’ beyond whistle-stop tours abroad would almost certainly help. Perhaps this is actually more of a general statement about what should be taught in educational establishments – be they attached to a football club or not – but that is a question for another day.

For the more adventurous footballer (and they are out there), the change of climate, easier access to athlete-appropriate food and fewer towns that look almost exactly alike may prove a beautiful awakening. For the less adventurous, it is possible to take your Xbox abroad, everywhere with a formal football league system has internet these days, and Nando’s is undergoing extensive global expansion. It’ll all be fine.

Gary Hartley is a long-suffering Leeds United fan. He edits the biannual literary magazine The Alarmist, and has written on football for The Blizzard, among others.
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