Striding about the Estadio da Luz pitch, holding aloft the European Cup, Gareth Bale draped a Welsh flag around his shoulders. It was a strange scene. In amongst all the Iberian and Latin American colour and flair stood a Brit.
Of course, the sight of a Brit in Spain is somewhat common, but Bale wasn’t wearing Union Jack shorts with socks and sandals on his way to a booze cruise. He is a British footballer who has succeeded abroad. That is something altogether more uncommon.
But why is it uncommon? Why do so few British players play abroad? Dutch legend Johan Cruyff summed it up succinctly, as per Phil Minshull of BBC Sport, by asking, “Why are there over the last 40 years only about five English players who have done well abroad? There’s something going on here. Something strange.”
There is an attitude within British footballing circles that only the Premier League matters. The words of Martin Tyler, Gary Neville, Alan Shearer et al, who frequently claim the English top-flight to be the best in the world, have seeped into the minds of the collective.
For all the hours of Spanish football coverage beamed onto British TVs and German success in the Champions League, there is still a certain ignorance of the continental game and its validity as a destination for British players.
Of course, a handful of Brits have made their mark beyond these shores: Steve Archibald and Gary Lineker at Barcelona, John Charles at Juventus, Kevin Keegan at Hamburg and, most recently, David Beckham at Real Madrid, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain.
Yet, admittedly, countless British players have ended up on the European scrapheap. Denis Law, Ian Rush and Michael Owen, to name just a few, all returned home with their tail between their legs following short spells in Europe.
“If you’re talking about the lad himself, I would definitely say he is not quite ready to go abroad,” insisted Glenn Hoddle, as per talkSPORT, on the day of Bale’s move to Spain. “He’s had a sensational year, but for him to pick the reins up in that form would be nigh-on impossible. I don’t feel he is quite ready off the pitch to make that move.”
His claim seems somewhat foolish now, but it does reflect a wider school of thought within the British game.
An estimated 5.5 million British people live abroad permanently—almost one in 10 of the UK population. Generally speaking, Britons are quite nomadic people, often following work to places like Australia and the Middle East. So why hasn’t this ethos permeated into football?
Young, foreign players make the move to Britain every year. It was no different last summer, as players like Yaya Sanogo, Andre Schurrle, Leroy Fer and Christian Eriksen were imported by Premier League clubs. So why can’t British players export themselves with the same self-assurance?
There is a perception that young British men—in the case of footballers—are unable to deal with the demands of living in a foreign country. That an unwillingness to adopt different cultures, food and languages is something that innately hinders all Brits.
The truth is most continental clubs have better mechanisms for helping new players settle than their English counterparts. Player liaison officers do more than run errands and separate out bowls of M&Ms. They are there to act as troubleshooters for homesick and lonely footballers, and Europe’s elite have some of the best around.
Yes, in many aspects Britain has an island mentality. Perhaps unsurprising given that, after all, it is an island. For players, there is a fear of being forgotten. As if moving abroad would push them over the edge of the footballing map.
In fairness, there is evidence to support this way of thinking. Look at Michael Mancienne, the former Chelsea and Wolves defender who has been playing in the Bundesliga with Hamburg for the last three seasons. How much have you heard about him? He’s been rejected by English football.
Real Madrid see Bale as the next Beckham—an exceptional player who can become a global brand, and that is of more value to Florentino Perez than any number of goals. He transcends his nationality, the hallmark of a truly great player.
But in the case of those below Bale’s level, is it possible to explain British football’s cottage industry from a different perspective? Do foreign clubs want British players?
While the Premier League is the most viewed, and subsequently most lucrative, league in the world, British football still has a reputation to shake off. Europe sees British football and the players it produces as an inferior product, raised on backward values. Europe sees British football as unrefined.
What’s more, British players are overpriced. For instance, while Manchester United look set to pay around £30 million for Southampton left-back Luke Shaw, Sevilla’s Alberto Moreno—a Spanish international and Europa League winner—is said to be available for about half that. What’s the incentive for European clubs to buy British?
The cycle is a vicious one. The less British players go abroad, the more daunting it is for someone to be a trailblazer, forging a path for others to follow. But maybe Bale has that in his debut season at Real Madrid. He has debunked the frankly baseless theory that British players can’t be successful outside Britain.
More British players should be open to the notion of going abroad to further themselves. Not all players can secure a world-record transfer to a club like Real Madrid in the way Bale did, but they can better themselves in Europe. Real Madrid’s Champions League-winning Welshman has set a precedent.