Thu, Jun 26, 2014 - Page 17 News List

WORLD CUP: England players lack travel experience

By John Leicester  /  AP, BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil

England goalkeeper Fraser Forster watches during their game against Chile at Wembley Stadium in London on Nov. 15, last year. Forster is the only player in their World Cup squad who does not play for an English club.

Photo: Reuters

In many ways, it is a head-scratcher: the country that invented soccer and which has the richest, most watched and, many would agree, best league in the world is also one of the worst performers at this World Cup. How can that be?

We are, of course, talking here about England — that self-important nation that is no longer very good at soccer, but is quite brilliant at marketing it. And that, right there, is part of its problem.

The argument goes like this and by now is familiar: Because the Premier League is so good at selling itself, its wealthy clubs can pay huge salaries to attract the best players. These foreign imports then elbow aside young Englishmen, who do not develop as they should because they do not play enough. The resulting weakening of the English game, according to this logic, helps explain why England is now flying home winless from Brazil.

Twenty years ago, two-thirds of players who started Premier League matches were eligible to play for England. Now, just one-third are, the Football Association said in a report released before this World Cup debacle, sounding the alarm and getting its excuses in early. In short, the pool of top English talent is becoming too shallow.

However, there is also another reason that the English do not talk about: their players are too English, too insular and they are failing to use the globalization of soccer to better themselves, as other nations are doing, with spectacular results at this World Cup.

Many protagonists at the tournament are players who had to move overseas to further their careers. Faced with a choice of learning to become better players with clubs abroad or staying close to friends, family and familiarity at home, they chose soccer. Too few English players make that same choice.

Take Luis Suarez, scorer of both Uruguay goals that sent England packing. At 19, he moved to the Netherlands to play and improve. Edinson Cavani, whose delightful cross set up Suarez’s first goal against England, also had not celebrated his 20th birthday when he moved to Italy.

Mario Balotelli, the scorer of Italy’s winner against England, moved to Manchester. Costa Rica, who stunned everyone except themselves by qualifying top of the England-Italy-Uruguay group, got their first goal in Brazil from well-traveled striker Joel Campbell, who before his 22nd birthday later this week has already played for clubs in France, Spain and Greece.

England players, by comparison, are stick-in-the-muds. All but one of Roy Hodgson’s squad of 23 play in England. The exception, reserve goalkeeper Fraser Forster, did not stray far: He is with Celtic in Scotland.

This is surely part of the reason England players often seem to travel so poorly compared with more worldly-wise rivals with broader horizons from other nations.

The English island mentality was also on display in the Football Association’s proposals for arresting the decline of the national squad. Pulling up the drawbridge, it proposed stricter limits on the numbers of foreign players coming to England.

Here is an alternative idea: If English players are struggling to get enough games with teams in England, then why don’t more of them pack their bags and try their luck overseas, just as so many non-English players do?

The association’s report said that the Champions League group stage this season featured 47 Brazilian players, even though that is a European competition. That is just one indication of how readily players from other countries move overseas. Historically, the English have been intrepid travelers. In the Amazon city of Manaus, where England played their first match of this World Cup, English engineers left behind a sewage system, among other things. However, the list of English soccer players who have made names for themselves abroad is a short one.

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