Ian Birrell

Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.


Football. Bloody hell! First Liverpool’s brilliant fightback against Barcelona taking them to a second successive European Champions League final, then Spurs swept aside a thrilling young Ajax team in a second-half blitz to join them.

Now two more English clubs have made the other big European club final, one even winning on penalties. And we still have Liverpool and Manchester City’s nerve-jangling fight to the wire this weekend for the Premier League title, followed by the exciting young lions of England contesting the inaugural Nations League finals next month.

English football at both national and club level is in strong shape after an extraordinary season – one of the most thrilling that I can recall in half a century of following the sport.

But one of my favourite moments was rather more mundane: when Neil Warnock, manager of struggling Cardiff City, delivered a rant against the Government’s inept handling of Brexit. “I can’t wait to get out of it,” he said, referring to the European Union. “I think we’ll be far better out of the bloody thing. In every aspect. Football-wise as well, absolutely. To hell with the rest of the world.”

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This was a surreal pleasure. A perfect metaphor. Here was this Yorkshireman of pensionable age, struggling with failure to compete, lashing out against globalisation – while standing in front of his club’s ‘Visit Malaysia’ banner.

Vincent Tan, their wealthy foreign owner, even changed the colour of their shirts to attract more Asian fans. Their club chairman was born in Cyprus. The players come from Denmark, Iceland, Ireland and Spain in Europe, along with others from Africa, Asia and north America.

Even though relegated, this club shows how top-flight football has thrived as teams have evolved into international coalitions. The sport is now a commercial powerhouse with billions of worldwide fans. The Bluebirds may not be good enough for premiership survival. But their standard of play is far higher today than many more successful clubs in the recent past and their brand has global allure. This is how Cardiff City can pay players two million pounds a year to play in its fine ten-year-old stadium – and even hand fringe players a seven-figure annual wage.

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Both on and off the field the game bears little comparison to when I started attending matches in the 1970s and 1980s, going to grim grounds to watch the ball lumped around pockmarked pitches and hoping to avoid fights between rival factions when heading to the station afterwards. Football was struggling to make ends meet, rife with violence and disasters such as Hillsborough symbolised its woes.

Then came the Premier League, in 1992, alongside a flood of Rupert Murdoch’s money – and our national game emerged like a butterfly from a cocoon into a lucrative global behemoth and crucial part of British soft power strength. Now the matches are watched by five billion people from around the world and the teams are valuable international brands which contribute an estimated billion pounds in tax alone to the British economy.

But looming Brexit sparked talk again that domestic talent is getting squeezed out by foreign mercenaries, with the Football Association seeing it as another chance to force teams to increase the number of English players.

This is a tired argument, divorced from economic and sporting reality. Yes, there are justified concerns over some owners of clubs, including those buying into a couple of the most prestigious brands such as Chelsea and Manchester City.

There is still too much corruption, the traditional bundles of ten pound notes in brown bags replaced by far bigger sums shifted in shady electronic transfers. And the sport seems increasingly divorced from its roots when players are so rich, tickets so costly and commercial focus on China and the United States. (Although my own club of Everton shows they can still remain part of their local community, despite a foreign-born owner, East African sponsor and Brazilian stars, with scores of initiatives from teams for people with disabilities through to assisting young offenders, older folks with dementia and funding a free school.)

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But on the field, almost everything has been transformed for the better. On the first day of the Premier League, there were just 13 foreigners performing; today, you would be fortunate to find 13 British players at one game. Then came not only the likes of Eric Cantona and Dennis Bergkamp with their delightful skills, but also innovative managers and backroom staff.

So, at Arsenal, a professorial Frenchman arrived and terminated the drinking culture, transformed diet, improved training techniques and freshened up tactics. In his debut season, Arsene Wenger became the first non-British manager to win the league title.

Critics point to the paucity of home-grown players in top-flight English football; a study last month found that more than two-thirds of goals scored in the Premier League were by foreigners, while another has found less than one in eight players now graduate from their team’s academies (and even here, many are young imports).

Greg Dyke, one of the driving forces behind the Premier League who later became FA chairman, has been very vocal on this issue. He has complained about “an awful lot of bog-standard” foreign players, said it was “depressing” Manchester City could win the title with so few Brits in the team, and promoted moves to limit the number of overseas stars now being speeded up with Brexit.

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But one of those Manchester City players was James Milner, the English warhorse who later joined Liverpool and played a key, disruptive role this week in their incredible defeat of Barcelona. Although not the most skilful individual, he has played the seventh most games of anyone in the Premier League due to his determination and professionalism.

And he has admitted that, while it can be frustrating to compete for a place against some of the world’s most talented stars, it improved his performance. “Playing and training with the quality we have at this club, how can you not be a better player? You’re constantly fighting for your place. You’re under pressure every time you step out on to the pitch,” he said while at Manchester City.

His words, echoed by others, such as the thoughtful former Chelsea star Frank Lampard, underline again how competition drives up standards in any sector and can improve services for consumers. For while there are fewer British players in the Premier League, those that break through must be of far higher standard – and this boost in skill, increased athleticism and improved attitude benefits the national team as well.

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It is impossible to argue that English football is in decline when you look at the way a striker such as Raheem Sterling at Manchester City grows sharper – or enjoy the emergence of a young fullback such as Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose vision and intelligence played a crucial role in Liverpool’s semi-final fightback. Jadon Sancho, another young England star, simply moved to Germany to get first team football when frozen out at Manchester City.

Typically, Theresa May misread the significance of this match when answering questions in parliament this week, insisting the lesson of Liverpool’s victory was that even when “your European opposition have got you beat; the clock is ticking down; it’s time to concede defeat — actually we can still secure success if everyone comes together”.

She missed the key point that this miraculous success was forged by a German manager with goals from Dutch and Belgian players – and that it means they stay in Europe, of course, rather than leave.

Despite the dwindling number of domestic players in the Premier League, there were still six who took part in that Liverpool game, and another four turned out for Spurs the following night, while the north London club’s star striker – Harry Kane, the England captain – was injured.

This underlines why, for all the fears, the national team has actually performed better since inception of the Premier League. In the years since England’s 1966 glory, through to the year of the league’s launch, England played 32 games in international finals and won 12, drew 9 and lost 11. Since then, they have played 39 and won 19, drawn 11 and lost 10.

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The England manager, Gareth Southgate, has also bemoaned the fact that the pool of players he can pick from is shrinking, with scarcely 50 Englishmen on the field some weekends. Yet not only are these players being pushed hard to win those places, most nations can only dream of having so many people performing weekly in the world’s most challenging football environment.

Leicester’s title triumph three years ago – driven by a Thai owner, Italian manager and English striker – highlighted again the depth of competition in this country and how globalisation has strengthened the game at all levels, despite fears of too much concentration at the top. Indeed, the stumbling giant of Manchester United shows that money cannot always buy success.

Football remains an important source of civic and national pride, inserting our disparate cities and tarnished nation into the international conversation while also offering an increasingly rare occasion when the country comes together in shared experience.

Clearly there are costs to progress. Yet ultimately we should give thanks to the power of globalisation in transforming our national game, which has been revived by the free movement of labour and capital – and bear in mind the wider lessons for other parts of the economy as we cheer on these teams.

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