Foreigners and Football

John O’Farrell takes the mick over the reaction to Arsenal’s decision this week to field a team with not a single British player in it.

This week, another football landmark was reached when a Premiership team fielded an entire squad of foreign players. “What is Arsene Wenger doing?” said the pundits. “I mean, OK, so Arsenal are 4-1 up, but they completely lack the homegrown talent of their opponents … Oh, hang on, now they’re 5-1 up.” In fact, it should have been six but we’re stuck with these useless English referees. “Where oh where are the top British players?” asked a fan at half time, sensing that he vaguely recognised the bloke serving him a reheated hotdog.

After the Bosman ruling and EU liberalisation created a freer market for players and the creation of the Premiership created a wealthy elite of clubs offering the best salaries in Europe, it was only really a matter of time until we had the Arsenal situation.

And when the increased internationalisation of English football began there was a consensus that there would be some sort of breaking point, where fans would struggle to identify with their team if there were hardly any players from their own country, let alone their own locality.

But that point never arrived. Arsenal fans have not walked out of Highbury in disgust and begun supporting Brentford because they can’t identify with Thierry Henry. Manchester United fans probably had more difficulty with the notion of having a Scouser as their hero than they did with identifying with a Dutchman and a Portuguese lad as their two best players.

And then there is Chelsea – owned by a Russian geezer, managed by a Portuguese bloke and with a team that over the past five years has looked more like a Serie A side than a Premiership one. Ask a Chelsea fan of today who their favourite player of all time is and they would probably tell you the name of a little Sardinian.

Its the same all over Europe – Barcelona have been as much a Dutch side as a Catalan one for most of the past decade. Sven Goran Eriksson’s scudetto winning Lazio side was half-Argentine and the real youth academy of French football is found in Africa not St Etienne.

And where have been the protests and the outcry from the fans?

Well, to the dismay of xenophobes and protectionists, there hasn’t been any. Football is still overwhelmingly the passtime of the working class who we are constantly told are worried about foreigners and have this in-built ‘limit’ which must not be crossed yet no-one, apart from a few pundits, really cares.

Footballers, when they pull on the shirts of our teams, are judged by one single criteria — their ability. If they are talented footballers then fans don’t care where they come from, what language they speak or the colour of their skin.

But they do love it when a player ‘does a Molby’ – Thomas Graveson’s scouse accent or Thierry Henry playing the barrow boy always go down well.

Its not the only in accepting foreigners in which football has shown itself to be one of the most progressive areas of British culture and football fans arguably among the most open-minded sections of society.

While the tabloid press trade in suspicion and dislike of Europe, trying to feed fears of or loss of identity, saving sausages and sterling, British fans have been spending more and more time and money travelling to European cities to watch football matches.

Even better, it is not just that they are following their own teams to La Coruna or Dortmund with the same ease as catching a train to Newcastle, but thousands of fans actually sit home and watch the Spanish or the Italian league on television even when there is no ‘British interest’ at stake. Large numbers of fans know about and are involved in a game that is truly European.

Likewise in Europe, the Premiership is hugely popular not only with Scandinavians, who have always loved English football, but increasingly with Spaniards and Italians who fill up pubs to watch Arsenal v United on the satellite sports channels while sat with a pint in their hands. Go to Soho on a Sunday afternoon and you’ll find English lads in Italian cafes watching the Milan derby with Italian immigrants.

None of them feel they are betraying their cultural identity by taking an interest in or a liking for, foreign football. Its just a natural part of being a modern European football fan. European intergration is a fact in football not just for the players but the fans as well. If anyone suggested withdrawing from this new post-national football world they would be laughed at.

Is there a lesson in this for politics? Well first, lets be careful. People do seem to accept change in football with greater ease than they do in the rest of life. A good chunk of the fans’ favourites at my team Burnley have been black players, heroes like Roger Eli, Ian Wright, Mitchell Thomas and currently Frank Sinclair – yet the town has the highest number of BNP councillors in the country.

And of course, anti-racist campaigners have long noted that black people are accepted in sport when they are not welcome in other areas of society. There is nothing new about that.

But I think there is something worth noting here. The rapid changes in football have been treated by media and politicians in a completely different manner to immigration. The sports media has not been full of outrage at the increasingly cosmopolitian make-up of the game. Apart from the fuss over Sven Goran Eriksson’s appointment as England coach there has been little negative comment on the whole process – people have been left to make their own minds up.

People make their own minds up with the Macedonian lad who serves them coffee on the way to work in the morning. He’s a good lad, making a living. The Turkish minicab driver is a decent bloke as well and the Nigerian working at reception always has a friendly word. The Polish painter and decorator does a good job at half the price and the Pakistani family down the road are nice people whose kids play with your kids.

Yet ask anyone about immigration and they will tell you it is out of control – something needs to be done. And the politicians agree.

I’m not saying the whole process is a result of media demonisation of immigrants, things are never that simple. But the media’s role hardly helps and they have assisted in creating the impression of hostility to and fear of immigrants. Nor is it all the fault of racist or opportunist politicians – but they hardly help.

My point is simply that in the world of football people were left to make up their own minds about foreign labour and European integration the two most emotive issues in British politics. And they decided that not only could they handle the changes but they actively enjoyed the opportunities they provided.

That is surely both encouraging for progressives and food for thought for those who insist that there are limits that cannot be exceeded and lines that cannot be crossed.