Ever since European clubs loosened restrictions on the number of foreign players, the game has become truly global. African players, in particular, have become abundant on the scene, supplementing the usual followers of Brazilians and Argentines.
Arsenal, for instance, has a first eleven that typically does not include a single British player. If you put together all the English players on the roster of the four English clubs which advanced to the final 16 of the UEFA Champions’ League, you would hardly be able to catch a single team.
There is little doubt that foreign players greatly enhance the quality of play in the European club championships. Europe's soccer scene would not be half as exciting without strikers such as Cote d’Ivoire’s Didier Drogba (playing with Chelsea) or Cameroon’s Samuel Eto'o (with Barcelona).
However, many fear that the quality of national teams is affected negatively by the availability of foreign players. Why hunt and invest for local talent if you can simply hire them from abroad?
England once again provides us with a perfect example. Many have blamed the country’s failure to qualify for this summer’s European national championship on the majority of foreign players in English club teams. True, but let's look at one of the more ignored competitions to get an overall snapshot of the situation.
The 2008 Africa Cup of Nations, held in Ghana during January and February, revealed the two-way reliance that the globalization of soccer has created. Many European clubs were left without their star players, as those players were called up to national-team duty.
But the most important lesson revealed by the Africa Cup is that successful nations are those that combine globalization’s opportunities with strong domestic foundations.
For the winner of the cup was not Cameroon or Cote d’Ivoire or any of the other African teams with loads of star players from European leagues, but Egypt, a country where only four players (out of a roster of 23) play in Europe.
By contrast, Cameroon, whom Egypt beat in the final, featured just a single player from a domestic club, and 20 from European clubs. Few of the Egyptian players would have been familiar to Europeans who watched that game, but Egypt played much better and deserved to win.
And it wasn’t a coincidence either: Egypt is the most successful national team in the tournament, and had won the African Cup five times previously.
The real lesson is that if you are going to take full advantage of globalization, you need to develop domestic competence along with international links.
What makes the difference for Egypt is that the country has a strong domestic league, which fosters depth of talent and consistency as a national team.
If English clubs and the national team take this issue into strong consideration and try to limit the amount of foreign players entering the gates of Europe, I can only see more trophies handed out to the English national team in the near future.