On BBC One's Match of the Day, former Brazilian international Leonardo gave a damning assessment of what he perceives is a lack of mental strength and ambition in British players that is stopping them from truly reaching their goal to become the best in the world, but was he right to dismiss them in such a manner?
Leonardo’s words could perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt considering the world’s most expensive player is Britain’s own Gareth Bale of Real Madrid— currently with 12 goals & 12 assists in 23 league games this season.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Leonardo certainly isn’t alone with his thoughts. There are many others who never consider the possibility of Britain’s own players being of the same calibre as any of the world’s best. Especially considering there’s only been one British Ballon D’Or winner in the last 30 years— former Liverpool striker Michael Owen in 2001.
Media perception plays a large part with how British players are regarded alongside the very best in Europe. It’s deemed to be much more glamorous playing for a side outside of the UK than it is for any club in Britain’s top divisions, and therein lies the problem.
UEFA’s Team of the Year provides a relatively fair gauge of who has been the best in their position over the previous 12 months, and it’s interesting to note how well British players have fared in the elite XI.
Since its inception in 2001, there has been a British representative in every Team of the Year apart from in 2012— with Wales international Gareth Bale making the list the year before and the year after.
While not boasting the large multitude of players that Germany and Spain do, such consistent representation does highlight that a minority of British players are hitting the same heights as that of Europe’s best year after year.
There are also the British players who have remained very successful throughout their entire careers, winning all the trophies football has to offer. Manchester United have a host of Brits who are among the most decorated players in world football, with Welsh midfielder Ryan Giggs having won more honours than any other player in English football history.
Giggs is also the most decorated player in Europe who is yet to retire. So why aren’t British players given their due?
One of the biggest reasons for this has been the very slow and very gradual decline of British clubs in the Champions League latter stages on average per season. There were no British clubs in the semi-finals of the European competition last season, and since the boom of the 08/09 campaign— which saw three British clubs reach the final four— there have only been two further seasons out of the four where there’s been a British club in the semis.
Leonardo’s argument is also questioning the ambition of British players to strive to be better— questioning whether they can reinvent themselves in order to be among the best. It’s unfair to accuse British players of not having such ambition as there’s no real evidence to support it.
It’s a false correlation that the lack of British players in the top foreign leagues outside of the UK is due to a lack of ambition— rather than it being viewed as either loyalty or because they feel the Premier League is the best league for them to play in.
There have been many British players past and present who have been enquired about by the European giants, so there’s no question there are players good enough to line up alongside the world’s best. Playing for the best sides in the biggest competitions seems to be the only way Brits are ever put on a pedestal, however.
It’s a very arrogant view to dismiss all British players in such a manner when Gareth Bale completely contradicts such logic this season. He left a British club for a world-record transfer fee to join a side who are the most successful club in Europe— winning the Champions League a record nine times— while also getting off to a fine start in his debut season with the most assists made in Europe so far (12).
Everton’s Leighton Baines, an England international, is also a player who was among the top five in Europe for most chances created during the 2012/13 season. His midfield teammate Gareth Barry even makes the WhoScored top 20 in Europe for most average passes made per game this campaign (69.8).
Their Merseyside rivals Liverpool have English striker Daniel Sturridge who has scored 20 goals from just 24 league outings this campaign, which sees him sixth in the top-scoring charts in Europe’s top countries—England, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Spain and Russia.
Swansea City midfielder Leon Britton has been compared to Barcelona’s own Xavi Hernandez, as the pair boast very high pass competition stats surpassing 90 percent per game on average.
Two British players make WhoScored’s statistical best XI of the current season— Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard & Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, both with a 7.7 rating.
As proven with the aforementioned, there are Brits performing on par with the world’s best this season when looking at their seasonal stats, so it’s not a question of mental capability that is holding them back.
So does that mean Manchester United’s Paul Scholes, Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard and Chelsea’s Frank Lampard will never compare to that of Barcelona’s Xavi, Real Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane or Juventus’ Andrea Pirlo?
Is it down to performances in matches against each other? Is it based on how many club honours they’ve won in their career? Or is it based on personal accolades and statistics?
Frank Lampard’s entire senior club & country career statistics (Zidane’s in brackets)
- Appearances: 838 (681)
- Goals: 250 (125)
- Int appearances: 103 (108)
- Int goals: 29 (31)
- Domestic league titles: 3 (3)
- Domestic cup wins: 6 (3)
- European cups wins: 2 (2)
- International honours: 0 (2)
As just one of many examples, there are many British players trumping their European counterparts but who are still regarded as of a lesser calibre, and it’s surely a wrong perception of Brits that is the cause of this.
It’s completely incorrect to say British players don’t have the mental capability to become the world’s best as there are present examples that disprove such a notion. So it’s over to you, Leonardo.