Overseas Footballers

Mark contributed to a Westminster Hall debate tabled by Iain Duncan Smith MP about the influence of overseas footballers have on the future of the national game.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing the debate and on his excellent contribution to it. He summed up concerns that many people have about overseas footballers. There is great complacency in the national game, because it is regarded as the greatest show on earth; that is how the premiership is marketed overseas. My right hon. Friend made very good points about ensuring that the quality of training for our home-grown talent remains strong; indeed, it should be strengthened. We have much to learn from what goes on in continental Europe and possibly even from other parts of the world. There is a notion that we are attracting just the cream of the cream of players. In fact, we are getting players who are being paid a lot of money, but they may well be approaching the end of their careers.

Like all hon. Members who have and will make contributions to the debate, I am a keen football fan and have been for almost the entirety of my 43 years. Certainly for the past 35 years I have watched the fortunes of my beloved Bury football club, to which the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) referred. I have to say that it has been a case of thin and thinner times, although we got an equaliser three minutes from time to deprive Bradford City of a victory last night, so at times there are small mercies in supporting Bury.

Great changes have taken place in the footballing world even in that 35-year time frame. I recall that in the 1970s, many footballing commentators said that the best talent was going overseas, to the detriment of the English game. We were not actually losing that many players, but some of the top players moved overseas: Kevin Keegan went to Hamburg; Liam Brady, who was Irish but who played in England, moved abroad; and other players left these shores, albeit in relatively small numbers. Of course, my right hon. Friend and people more generally now argue that there is perhaps too much overseas talent in this country, to the detriment of the national game. I accept that, in part, it is a matter of degree. A vast number of overseas players play here at the highest level of the game, which is inevitably a barrier to some of the young talent.

Another big problem is that there have always been overblown expectations of our national side. Back in the 1950s, the nation had its first footballing fiasco when we lost in the 1950 World cup to the United States of America. Three years later, we had the horror of losing for the first time against anything other than a home nation at Wembley. In a sense, expectations were ratcheted up still more by winning the World cup, as we did on home ground in 1966. The expectation is that winning the World cup is the rightful place of the England national side, but the fact is that only in 1990 has England made it even as far as the semi-final in a World cup.

On immigration and overseas players, there are a lot of EU nationals playing in the premier league, but they are increasingly playing right the way through the profession, including, in some cases, in the semi-professional game in this country. Of course, there is free movement of labour, so we cannot prevent such people from playing here, nor should we.

Mr. Sutcliffe: The hon. Gentleman has thrown up an interesting question and I would be interested to hear his view on it. Once an EU national?s residency rules apply, they would qualify to play for England. Does he think that it would be appropriate for people such as Almunia, the Arsenal goalkeeper, to play for the national side?

Mr. Field: This is going to be quite a battle. My other great passion is cricket. Twenty years ago, the notion that we would have an England cricket captain by the name of Hussain might have been a horror to some of the purists of that game. Obviously, things move on, and rightly so. If Mr. Almunia wishes to make his home here and is committed to becoming a British citizen, he should have every right to play for the English national side or, indeed, the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish national side.

There are something like 250 or 260 overseas players on the books of premiership clubs, but there are virtually no restrictions whatever to the talent that premiership or other clubs can choose to employ. There are no wage, squad size or registration restrictions, and, post-Bosman, sometimes no transfer fees. Of course, that is in stark contrast to other games internationally; for example, baseball in the United States.

There are plenty of non-EU nationals for whom, potentially, employment restrictions are in place. Those of us who are keen football fans will have seen coverage of the Africa cup of nations. I suspect that we are at the thin end of the wedge. We are attracting and will continue to attract an incredible amount of top quality African talent to these shores, as well as South American talent. The recent controversy over the Watford player Al Bangura, a Sierra Leone national who was initially refused a work permit will, I suspect, be the start of things to come with regard to the debate over such matters.

I understand that the Minister will elucidate in his contribution at the end of the debate the plans afoot to limit the number of non-EU players. I understand that the Home Office tightened the rules as long ago as 1999, so that non-EU players applying for a permit must have either played for their country in at least 75 per cent. of its competitive A-team matches in the previous two years, or else it must be possible to say that they have contributed significantly as a special talent to the development of the game at the top level in the UK. Given my right hon. Friend?s concerns, will the Minister tell us more about the potential review of that legislation, and whether there are plans to tighten or loosen it in future?

The face of the national game has changed greatly. Again, I recall the low point in the 1980s, which I mentioned earlier. There was hooliganism and poor attendances, and crumbling, low-grade stadiums led to some of the appalling disasters that those of us who follow football well remember. To a large extent, the money from television has helped to transform elements of the national game. Today, the premier league is the most lucrative football league in the world, with total club revenues nearing £2 billion. The Sky TV deal money has cascaded in, as it were, even in recent years. Rightly, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) talked about the importance of the premier league, which was created 16 years ago. At that time, the Sky deal was worth what seemed like an astronomical sum compared with the deal negotiated by the BBC and ITV only a few years previously. It was worth £191 million over five seasons, but it increased to £670 million over four seasons from 1997, and to in excess of £1 billion over three seasons for the period that ended last year.

There is no doubt that the game is being marketed abroad. I travel abroad, and it is a joy to me to be able to watch live football matches in China or India. The game is being marketed as the greatest show on earth. The branding and marketing opportunities, particularly in south-east Asia?audiences in China alone are in excess of 200 million?are making an enormous difference. The colossal marketing and branding of our game has had a great impact on the amount of money that it attracts. I understand that football goes out to 202 different countries, which is greater than the membership of the United Nations, and that 500 million people frequently watch it.

I worry for the future of our game. I worry that too much of the money goes straight through to the talent, and I wonder how sustainable that will prove to be, particularly if Sky reaches saturation level in its coverage of the game. Although I accept that Setanta has moved in to some extent, it is a smaller interest in the broader TV game. Sky is almost a monopoly player, so if it wanted to put a cap on its coverage, it could be difficult for clubs to work down the talent?s expectations of the game.

We must also think about what would happen if the popularity of our game begins to wane internationally. Potentially, other leagues could attract great interest in China and south-east Asia or, indeed, other sports could begin to make more of an impact there. There is little doubt that football is the world game at the moment, but I worry that we tend to look on the past 10 years as the norm. As I said, I can well recall how unpopular football had become in the mid-1980s. It was not seen as a sexy sport; and, given the game?s problems, celebrities did not wish to associate themselves with it in any way.

The half-empty stadiums in recent weeks have been quite an eye-opener.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Interestingly, it is possible to say that season ticket holders actually mask the lower numbers. Fewer and fewer people watch FA cup matches because they have to pay so much extra money to see such games.

Mr. Field: My right hon. Friend is spot on; in fact, he took the words out of my mouth. I was about to make precisely that point. The third round of the FA cup included a number of games between premiership sides. The match between Sunderland and Wigan in particular proves the rule, as it were. If that match took place in the premiership, the stadium there in the north-east would be more or less full, for the reasons that my right hon. Friend pointed out?in order to get a foothold, most people must buy a season ticket. Yet, although I suspect that rates were reduced because it was an FA cup match, only about 20,000 people went to the stadium. I worry that it might be starting something of a trend, particularly given the attraction of the bigger premiership clubs, which will move further and farther ahead in their appeal, because the more languishing premiership clubs have increasingly empty stadiums, particularly when matches are being televised. There is already some evidence of that.

My biggest concern is therefore how to ensure that the game attracts a younger generation not only of home-grown players but of home-grown fans. The great worry is that if we do not give some serious thought to the way in which our national game develops, we will find the next generation of consumers looking in a different direction. I now look forward to another Bury fan having his say on the matter.