No, Foreign Players Are Not the Problem in Soccer Today
An Unusual Sight
At about 94 minutes, the final whistle blew—a sound that would be the final piercing stab into the hearts of Italians all around. November 13th, 2017, marked a sad day for Italian football as the national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup for the first time since 1958, the same year Eisenhower was the American President and Hula Hoops were invented. Tears, anger, and blame were on one sideline; ecstasy, excitement, and teamwork were on the other. The blame spread around after the game to the coach, Ventura; the aging players, De Rossi, Barzagli, etc.; and last of all, Serie A.
All these are fair criticisms, but what ensued was the blaming of foreign players within Serie A, the Italian football league. The logic of that argument is that since Serie A seems to have more foreign players, the national team is robbed of Italian talent. However, this argument holds little water given the comparisons to the Premier League, the interesting use of the youth system, as well as the generational gap.
Debunking the "Foreign Players Argument"
Many argue that because Serie A has too many foreign players, opportunity is stripped from Italians trying to get playing time, and therefore, these Italians are not seen and not picked by the national team. However, this claim is not really based on any conclusive evidence. Instead, in 2016, a study was conducted by the CIES Football Observatory that showed that Italy was ranked 3rd in the number of foreign players (57.9%) in their league, only behind Belgium and England.1
According to the same study, England's league (Barclays Premier League) consisted of 66.4% of foreign players, nearly 10 percent more than that of Italy. There lies one crucial difference between the two national teams: England was in the 2018 World Cup, while Italy is not. In 2018, the English national team was fairly strong, and they were a young team with an average age of 26. It is clear that the Premier League has an overwhelming amount of foreign players, but it does not seem to have heavily hurt their attempt at international success.
For more perspective, the German league (Bundesliga) had 50.1% of foreign players in their league, 7% less than Italy, which is not a large gap. In 2018, the German national team was defending World Cup and Confederations Cup champions. So it is quite clear that the number of foreign players in leagues does not heavily influence a national team's success or failure, especially Italy.
The Future Is Bright... Right?
A similar argument is that club teams choose foreign players over young native players, which leads to the youth players not getting enough experience. This could be true, but it is of no fault to the club team. The club teams in the league and the national team are theoretically two separate entities and therefore have their own interests. In fact, many Serie A teams already field a large number of young players with loads of potential, some of which already had playing time in the national team. Donnarumma and Romagnoli from AC Milan, Rugani from Juventus, Gagliardini from Inter Milan, and many others.
Overall, Italy's under-21 team has made some improvements and even advanced to the semi-final of the under-21 European Championship in 2017. Could some of these players benefit from more playing time in the top leagues? The answer is absolutely, but winning is everything, and if a certain country's youth does not provide the immediate talent, the club team will hesitate to invest.
Out With the Old and In With the New
Foreign players were never blamed when things were going well. Italy won the World Cup in 2006, were runners up in the European Cup in 2012, and reached the quarter-finals in the 2016 edition of the European Cup. However, when they crashed out of the World Cup group stage in 2010 and 2014, the attacks against foreign players arose, and they returned again in 2018.
However, another explanation for the decline in performance is the generational gap. The recent, questionable coaching of the national team has often relied on older players, especially players from that World Cup year in 2006. As of 2014, there were four players from the 2006 competition in the starting line-up. As of 2016, three starters. Although Gianluigi Buffon is arguably the greatest goalkeeper of all time, the reigns could have been handed to Gianluigi Donnarumma.
It seems as though after the firing of Gian Piero Ventura, Italy attempted to rebuild. The point is that a high-caliber team such as Italy is able to rebuild without slandering foreign players. There are plenty of young Italian starters in Serie A, and in time, more will appear.
Instead of blaming the failures of the Italian national team on foreign players, the best course of action is to discuss what went wrong and how to move forward in a respectful and dignified manner. The first problem was handled following the wake of the loss to Sweden; Ventura had been fired. The coach's tactics or lack thereof ultimately crippled the team and as a result, the energy and passion of some of the players declined and their performance followed.
Secondly, there does need to be an influx of resources and funds to the youth program. If the youth are inherently better than foreign talent, club teams will have no problems choosing the young, native players. Another potential solution would be to slowly evolve the style of Italian football. The Italian national team is stuck in old tactics and is constantly beaten by faster, younger, attacking teams. The national team does not have to give up on its defending mentality, but it can no longer rely on it. Nevertheless, Italy must still make use of its historically strong defense given its already talented pool of defenders to choose from.
Lastly, what Serie A and the rest of Italian football must do is to stop the racism. The constant bashing of foreign players and racist chants in stadiums have no place in the game loved by all cultures, nations, races, and genders. Instead of being destructive, let's all be constructive in our criticism. Football, or soccer if you will, is one of the only sports that is loved across the whole world, if we continue to alienate people from it, the only thing that will suffer is the game itself.
1 Poli, Raffaele, Loïc Ravenel and Roger Besson. "Foreign players in football teams." CIES Football Observatory Monthly Report. Issue no. 12. February 2016.
© 2018 Gianfranco Regina