How immigration can help England win the World Cup
By Rob Casey
Monday 03 May 2010 21:19:00
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It’s a World Cup year and a general election year too, but in 2010 football and politics have become more closely aligned than ever before. With political parties seeking support from fan friendly policies in relation to club ownership, it’s also important to consider how the national sport could be affected by another issue, also high on the election agenda: immigration.


It’s a divisive issue. Not just between far right little Englanders and the liberal Left, but more critically among ‘the ordinary voter’ who is neither racist nor willing to relinquish all control of the borders. It’s a policy area that’s far from straightforward, but from a football fan’s perspective, there really is only one position: Immigration into the UK is good for our game, and while we may not entirely feel the benefits of it right now, the long-term implications are resoundingly positive. 

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In their excellent book, Why England Lose, published last year, sports economists and writers Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski take a statistical look at the reasons behind England’s assumed underachievement in international football, concluding a number of revealing truths. Like it or not, the UK’s involvement in the EU has improved our performances on the football field; the increase of foreign players to the Premiership has improved competition and therefore the performance of home-grown players on the international stage; and as we look to the future, a rise in the population should statistically improve our chances of success in major tournaments. So in summary, immigration to the UK has improved and will continue to improve England’s chances of winning a World Cup again, and any reversal of this trend would substantially damage our future chances.


Beginning with our role as a member of the United Kingdom in the EU, Kuper and Szymanski point out:


“Networks are key to the latest thinking about economic development. Better networks are one reason why some countries are richer than others. As it happens, networks also help explain why some countries have done better at football than England. English football’s biggest problem until very recently was probably geography. The country was too far from the networks of continental western Europe, where the best football was played.”


Our willingness to appoint foreign coaches for the national side, i.e. Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello has correlated with the success of other Europeans, most notably Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho, in the domestic game. This shift away from isolationism over the last decade or so has been reflected in English clubs’ successes in European competitions, reversing the trend of little England falsely assuming superiority in all matters, even against all the evidence.


“For centuries now, the interconnected peoples of western Europe have exchanged ideas fast. The Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could happen in western Europe because its scientists were near each other.”


Likewise, the success of clubs such as Manchester United on the European stage has similarly resulted from the increased influence of European players and styles of play entering into the domestic game. Contrary to public opinion, immigration and the influence of Europe has not diluted national identity and success in the footballing world. It has positively enhanced it.


“Countries separated from the EU – either by great distance, or by poverty, or by closed borders under dictatorships – often underperform in football.”


“If people in football understood numbers better, they would grasp that the problem of the England team is not that there are too few Englishmen playing in the Premier League. To the contrary, there are too many.”


Kuper and Szymanski argue that foreign players in the English game have increased competition, which is as good for home-grown football productivity as it is for business, and such competition has also prevented certain players from burn-out. An English side with successful cup-runs can play 60 games in a season. (Even Fulham this year will beat that figure.) Imagine the effect on the national team if all our players had played this many.


So we have established that foreign players bring benefits to the national game, and that EU membership is ideologically and economically important in football terms, but what about general immigration? EU involvement has brought many people to our country from Eastern Europe, plus there are many others coming from outside of the EU, also from nations not known for their football heritage. Can these people benefit us too?


“In any international match, these three factors – the size of the nation’s population, the size of the national income, and the country’s experience in international football – hugely affect the outcome.


“Where England falls short is in size. What often seems to go unnoticed is that without the other home nations, England’s population of 51 million puts it at a major disadvantage to the countries it likes to measure itself against in football. Not only is Germany much bigger, with 80 million inhabitants, but France and Italy have around 60 million each.”


Obviously, our island cannot sustain a population much larger than we already have, but there are some areas in need of growth, and if our population is to increase, then rather than put a strain on our economy, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that skilled workers will help the nation to grow into greater prosperity. And of course, as the statistics show, give us a better chance of competing with our neighbours on the football field.


This argument so far has been constructed based on statistical evidence, some real examples and projected theory. However, in concrete terms, we need look no further than the great black players who have made an impact on our national side, to see how immigration, either first or second generation, has helped to improve the quality of English football.


If John Barnes, Paul Ince, Sol Campbell, and now Ashley Cole, Jermain Defoe and our captain, Rio Ferdinand can break through with their migrant heritage, then it shouldn’t be too long before a generation of Asian heritage players, as well as the children of Eastern European settlers emerge to lead England to future glory.


A muslim born to Algerian parents inspired a team of immigrants to back-to-back World Cup and European Championship successes in 1998 and 2000, but Zinedine Zidane’s achievements are not unique. Immigrants have enriched every successful international side.


It doesn’t happen instantaneously. Integration is difficult at first, and even second and third generation Asians have struggled to make the breakthrough in professional football. There’s no shortage of interest in the game from these children of immigrants, and the hostile environments of football stadia, pubs and clubs where football is shown have calmed down a great deal. However, the real breakthrough will come when the first British Asian player makes an impact in the Premiership.


Black children and those of mixed racial background grew up watching players like John Barnes mesmerise the world in the 80s. This allowed them to believe that they could do the same. Now we have several second and third generation children of migrants making key contributions to the England squad, in every position on the field. All from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds. It’s therefore just a matter of time before the children and grandchildren of today’s immigrants enrich our national sport further.


We might win the World Cup this year, it might be in four years time, or it might still take a little longer, but however long it takes, it’s only likely to happen in a cultural climate that embraces immigration and the numerous positive benefits that come from being part of something bigger than our own small island.


Isn’t it time we focused on these positives?

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