Author’s note: as the title suggests, this is not a piece about Arsenal; we are in the interlull period, so I thought I would write about the England team. Please feel free to read it anyway; there’s a whole paragraph about Mesut Özil that I’m sure you’ll enjoy.
Imagine you’re in late medieval Europe. Football, or at least football as we understand it now, did not exist, and as a result life is considerably more boring. Most people are poor, oppressed, dying of the plague, or all of the above. Unless you’re an aristocrat, and statistically you aren’t, then the only real hope you have for making some money is to learn a craft, and that means, normally, joining a guild.
In much of medieval Europe a craftsman without guild backing was not respected, and often unable to work in major cities. In order to progress in their respective fields (metaphorical fields, not real ones) craftsmen would have to enlist with the as an apprentice and work their way up through the ranks, but before they could become a recognised “master” they would have to spend a period as a journeyman (loosely translated: “day worker”). In many cases a journeyman was required to travel the country, or sometimes outside of it, in order to learn skills that he would not be able to gain in his home town. This tradition was particularly prevalent in what is now Germany and Switzerland, and, in fact, is still practiced by a small minority of craftsmen today.
OK, history lesson over. Now we’re back to football.
I doubt very much if Mesut Özil was thinking about the history of the journeyman tradition when he left Germany for Spain, although it would be nice to think so. In any case, it’s an analogy that I think can be applied to his career. Having served his metaphorical apprenticeship in the Bundesliga at Rot-Weiss Essen, Schalke and Werder Bremen, Özil left Germany to study the game under Mourinho in 2010, learning to play in a Spanish league vastly different from the one he was used to. He lost nothing of the skills he gained in Germany, playing for (and, just as importantly, against) the great and the good of German football, but he was now supplementing those skills with others learned abroad, skills that would be very difficult to learn in Germany – football played at a different pace, with a different philosophy, and in a different environment. After 3 years at Madrid, Özil decided to move on again, playing in another very different league, a much more physical and fast-paced one – ours, in fact. So far, I think he’s actually struggled slightly at Arsenal, and that’s not surprising, but he’s learning to play a different kind of football that will be another lace in his boot, another set of skills he can apply to his game. And that is something that he will take back with to the German national football team, and which will make him even more of an asset for Joachim Löw.
This attitude, that something new can be learned playing abroad, and in a different set of competitions, is one that is prevalent throughout Europe, and indeed much of the world, but it’s not one we’ve taken on board in England. This isn’t an attitude that is limited to football, either, but one that seems to apply to Brits in general – in this recent article in the Telegraph, government minister David Willetts tells us that only 25,000 British students chose to study abroad in 2011/12, compared to 400,000 foreign students choosing to study in Britain; this despite the fact that British employers are looking for graduates with foreign language skills and international experience.
The stats are even more stark amongst footballers. There are 357 foreign players in the Premier League (stats courtesy of www.transfermarket.co.uk). Of the current England squad, however, only one player plies his trade outside of the country: Fraser Forster, who is currently the goalkeeper at Celtic. That’s just 1 player in just 1 other country. Compare that to the national teams of Germany (which draws on players from 3 countries), Spain (4 countries), Argentina (7), Belgium (8), Brazil (8) or Columbia (10). Is anyone going to disagree with me if I suggest that all of those teams are currently better than England?
Even outside those picked for international duty, there are currently no English footballers in La Liga, or in the Bundesliga, or in Ligue 1, or in Serie A, which I think we can safely say certainly represent, along with the Barclays Premier League, the best leagues in Europe, if not the World. Each has its own playing style, each has something that it can teach to new players, and that is something that English footballers, and as a result the English national team, is desperately missing out on.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the England squad, arguably made up of some of the best players in the Premier League (Rooney, Wilshere, Gerrard, Baines, Cole, Walcott and Sturridge all qualify for that honour, I think) invariably seems to underperform. I’m not suggesting that the lack of experience abroad is the only reason for our struggles, by any means, but I don’t think it can be ignored. Has it really never occurred to any young English player that, if you want to learn to pass like a Spaniard or shoot like a German, then the place to go and do that might be in Spain or Germany? And has it not occurred to the FA that, instead of panicking because there are too many foreign players and introducing a home-grown rule that is guaranteed to lower the quality of the league as a whole, the thing to do might be to encourage young English footballers to learn their craft elsewhere, and to bring new skills back to England? Plus, this would seem to be a fairly obvious opportunity for English players like Kyle Walker, Jordan Henderson, Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge to join a team that might give them some Champions League experience, in leagues that are less congested for the top spots (which is exactly what Fraser Forster has done). And who knows – it might even make them better footballers too.
I’d love to hear any thoughts anyone else has on this matter, whether or not you agree with what I’ve said, in the comments section below. Thanks!
Special PS for Gooners: I know I have a tendency to take metaphors too far, but I couldn’t resist this one. In medieval Europe a journeyman became a master by completing their “masterpiece” (which is where we get the term), a true demonstration of their talent and craft. If we consider, as I have, that Mesut Özil’s apprenticeship was served in the Bundesliga, and he then became a journeyman with his travels to Spain, is it too much to think that he will now produce his masterpiece in England? Here’s hoping…