Remember some of these names? Craig Forrest (Canada), Jan Stejskal (Czech), John Jensen (Denmark), Jan Mølby (Denmark), Eric Cantona (France), Torben Piechnik (Denmark), Guðni Bergsson (Iceland), Ronny Rosenthal (Israel), Ken Monkou (Holland), Hans Segers (Holland), Efan Ekoku (Nigeria), Stig Inge Bjørnebye (Norway), Henning Berg (Norway), Gunnar Halle (Norway), Erland Johnsen (Norway), Andrei Kanchelskis (Russia), Roland Nilsson (Sweden), John Harkes (USA), Roy Wegerle (USA), Bruce Grobbelaar (Zimbabwe), Peter Ndlovu (Zimbabwe) ???
Well these guys were some of the first foreign players to grace a newly formed Premier League in the 1992/93 season. On the open day of the Premiership just 11 foreign players were named in starting lineups, the Premier League was then not quite as global as it is now. If we look at the Premier League today there are 337 players registered to play from across 66 countries – quite a change from the early days. There is no doubt in my mind that foreign players have brought a lot to the English game, there is also no doubt that in the short-term foreign players had a negative affect on emerging English talent.
Back at the start of the Premier League we can see that the majority of foreign players in England came from either mainland Europe or Scandinavia. Players from further afield were a lot rarer in teams and you would only see a handful of players from places like Africa, the United States and the Caribbean, a lot of whom will have grown up in England anyway – a far cry from the 66 nations we see represented in today’s Premier League.
Over time things have changed drastically and talent from all over the world, providing they can secure a work permit (sometimes even when they can’t), have become the norm in the Premier League and many of Europe’s top divisions. Back in the 90’s, players were bought based on talent more than anything else (don’t count Ali Dia or brown envelopes in that), but more and more you wonder why clubs sign certain players whose talent never becomes obvious to the rest of us.
It is something I like to call the ‘David Beckham effect’. This is when a player is bought more for commercial purposes rather than as an obvious benefit to the playing side of a team, and this will become more and more apparent in the Premier League as the top sides start to try to globalise their brand. Let’s kick things off with Beckham: David was a true international superstar and research out of the States showed that in his first season at LA Galaxy signing Beckham would equate to $20m in additional revenue per year for the team.
Beckham brings with him shirt sales, sponsorship appeal and endorsements, plus appeal for recruiting other players. The real war for Europe’s super clubs is no longer raging in raising attendances (at least not in the Premier League), it is all about selling TV rights, memberships, internet subscriptions and merchandise worldwide. This is why you won’t see Becks back in the Premier League.
Traditionally, players from mainland Europe and Scandinavia were the most popular imports for Premier League clubs, but soon the balance will swing further towards players from the USA, China, India and Japan as they are high in population and have access to the latest technologies. India have struggled to produce a player of note, but the USA, Japan and China are getting there.
Arsenal signed Japanese player Ryo Miyaichi in January 2011 (who went on loan instantly to Feyenoord) and in the summer South Korean striker Park Chu-Young. This summer marked Arsenal’s first Asian tour and they have significantly ramped up their online digital presence to compete in the battle to win worldwide fans. At Arsenal’s recent AGM they reported that Asian membership was up to 350,000 – don’t think this is any fluke.
Yesterday Liverpool announced the signing of the United States under17’s captain, who chose Liverpool ahead of going to college in the States. In the summer they signed another promising talent from the USA called Villyan Bijev, who was instantly loaned out to Fortuna Dusseldorf in Germany. In May Liverpool took South Korean’s Kim Yoon-Soo, 16, and Park Hyeon-Jim, 18 on trial and last month they gave a lot of coverage to Chinese trialists Long Chen, 16, and Chen Xiao Mao, 14 on their official website, despite not signing the players. This puts out content that Asian or American fans will be interested in, which will create a link between them and an English club.
Manchester United have always had a large presence in Asia and currently have Park in their squad. Chelsea and Manchester City have engaged in tours of America and Asia and have concentrated on other markets such as South America for player recruitment. In a way it is only Chelsea, Manchester City and Spurs (out of the top 6 sides) who are behind in recruiting players from the US and Asia, but they likely won’t be far behind for long.
The days of signing players for the sake of selling shirts is now gone, it is no good if you now sign a player that you cannot give exposure to because the long term business prospects are no good. We are still at the point where you should be cynical of clubs signing players from markets that they want to tap in to and no doubt if there were any Indian footballers of note, they would be at Premier League clubs. Don’t be surprised to see an influx of players from North America, Asia and Africa – young players that present no monetary gamble, but in the long run could become a cash cow. Get them young, train them up & make a superstar for every continent.
Don’t be surprised to be reading about the latest trialist at your club or thinking how good some features on the club website have become. The sad thing for the core English fan, is that none of this is for you – the clubs have long since secured your stake in their money-making machine. English fans are starting to matter less and less and it is the 21 countries with bigger populations than the United Kingdom that matter now.