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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 23 January 2008

[Mr. Martin Caton in the Chair]

Overseas Footballers

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Siobhain McDonagh.]

9.30 am

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): I asked for this debate not to demand that politicians and the Government get directly involved in running UK football, or any sport for that matter, but because, like many hon. Members, I take an interest in football. I care that the national games of England, Scotland and the other home countries are in good health, and when they are not, I want to ask key questions and initiate a debate.

Many hon. Members will remember that the English national side crashed out of the European championship rather ignominiously last year. At the time, under much criticism—not just from the media—the Football Association promised a root-and-branch review. It said that it would not be rushed into appointing a new manager and that it would do everything in good time, but within a few weeks, it had rushed to appoint a new manager and the root-and-branch review was apparently so deep that no one has heard of it since. The FA may be searching even now to find out what the roots are, but most of the spectators—the season ticket holders who turn out, day in, day out, year in, year out, and fork out lots of money—should have a part to play. I am concerned that their voice has not been heard. Many of them say that they do not know what is going on and that they are fed up with it. To allow this issue to disappear into quiet considerations among men whom no one really voted for and whom no one from the fan base seems to have any contact with would be wrong. Lord Triesman’s arrival presents an opportunity to initiate a debate, and I want to help. If nothing else, the House should at least ask questions and start a debate that reflects the interests of many people in the country.

I want to address two linked issues. The English premiership is peculiarly unique in many respects. I shall not focus on Scotland, because it has sorted out many of the issues that I want to discuss. The Scots’ team did incredibly well in the competition, and it was a tragedy that it did not qualify—not the other way around. Many relevant issues have been sorted out in Scotland, including its youth policy, and we may well have lessons to learn.

The English premiership is so dominant. The first issue that I want to address is the effect of training on the development of new, young English players coming through to the top sides. The balance of overseas players in the premiership seems to be out of kilter with almost everybody else. On training, the premiership declares:

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I worry about such statements, because they sometimes miss the point. Making youngsters from possibly every nation in the world compete at that age begins to limit the number of places available for young English national players.

The different attitudes on training are interesting. Alfie Apps, the European scout for West Ham has said that, in England, our clubs have put money into training and demanded that players develop quickly. Many clubs discard players at a very early age if they do not think they are up to the job—18 is normally the limit. Many overseas coaches are concerned that, on the continent for the most part, they persist with the development of young players until they are 22. Ironically, that is often the age at which English clubs pick up overseas players, having discarded their own at an earlier age.

Other interesting developments go hidden in the lack of debate. What is happening about the lack of premiership academies? It is staggering that more and more of them are taking overseas players at younger and younger ages, thus squeezing opportunities for young English players. Currently, 15 per cent. of youngsters attending academies are from overseas, and that number is increasing. Arsenal now has an academy in Africa, and Liverpool has forged links with MTK in Budapest. No less a person than Sir Trevor Brooking, for whom I have huge respect, has said that

I shall come to premiership numbers in a moment. If one watches carefully, one sees that the situation is beginning to mirror what has happened between the advent of the premiership and today—a slow squeezing out of English participation. If Trevor Brooking is worried about it, I think we all should be.

The current situation stems from a problem deep in the roots of youth training. When Juninho came here and saw our training, he said:

He had a very poor opinion of the quality of training. Trevor Brooking made a telling point when he said:

of an exception—

On the continent, people are really looking at football early on, trying to fish out players early and stay with them over a longer period; it seems that almost exactly the opposite happens here.

I am not a supporter of Manchester United—indeed, I gloried in Tottenham Hotspur’s great result last night, which will go down in the history books, I am sure—but one has to respect Alex Ferguson and Manchester United enormously, because the club’s player participation ratios are among the best in the premiership. Also, Alex Ferguson’s ability to bring on young players is worth considering. He criticised the rule that prevents English clubs from signing under-12s who do not live within an hour of the club’s academy and under-16s who live more than 90 minutes away, and he should have been listened to. Such matters could and should have been dealt with, but they have not been dealt with early enough.

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On the pressure of training, Damian Comolli, the sporting director at Tottenham Hotspur, who knows something about this, said:

whereas in England, the amount would be 1,152 hours on average. The point that he is making is that the French seem to take training much more seriously, and theirs is much more skills-based. How much do we complain about watching a side that cannot keep the ball when it plays other international sides? That starts with training.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. We have four home nation teams, and not one of them will participate in the European championship this year. Does he agree that they had passion and commitment, but clearly lacked technique?

Mr. Duncan Smith: I am not setting myself up as an expert on technique; I am simply asking the questions that most fans are asking, such as the one that the hon. Gentleman asks. I think that Scotland has got to grips with some of the problems. If the English premiership were a bit more like the Scottish, I sense that there would not be the same kind of problems—he is right about that.

Let me come to the FA’s role. When I secured the debate, we asked the FA how much money is being invested and what it could tell us about the effectiveness of that investment. We hear an awful lot about football being a business. We constantly hear that it is a global business, that we are in competition and that it is all about business. I shall come back to that point in a moment. The FA gave us a global figure that £60 million a year is invested; £38 million into the grass roots, including £15 million to the Football Foundation charity. My point is that we cannot get any deeper than that.

If I were running a business and was training people, I would constantly assess the effectiveness of the training. I would measure it against the outputs and outcomes, not just the inputs. That is what I am worried about. It should be more public, and we should be talking about it. Clearly, something fundamentally wrong is going on, and it is only fair that every fan can get to the roots of that.

I return to the point that I began with: why do we have so many overseas players? What is the problem? I have to tackle head on the whole issue about the premiership being a business. I do not doubt that business is involved in it. Clearly, money is necessary to make these things run, and clubs must be as profitable as possible and run as businesses for that reason. But is football just a business?

Let me quote something from a press release that was included in the premier league’s documents that came over to me when I started talking about this debate. Page 1, which is normally where one places some of the most important, key, salient facts, states:

I could pick that up from pretty well any annual report published in the City. Where is the passion? Where is the idea that the premier league is about teams playing all the way up to international level? I have never been to a football ground where the chant has been, “Our price to earnings ratio is better than yours,” or “Your profit and loss is rubbish.” It does not make any sense to me. Imagine fans debating and chanting across at each other about financial figures. What a smart day that would be. They do not do that. Everyone screams about what is happening on the pitch, and it would seem that that should be the No. 1 point.

Football is not just a business, but, even if it were, we should examine the idea that it is a competitive, global business. Who is the premier league competing with, and on what is it competing? First, we are told that the number of overseas players involved in the league is all about competition—if we do not do it, the others will, and we have to compete. Let us look at first-team squads. The FA wants us to look at contracted players, but the truth is that many of them will never make it on to the pitch for the first team at all—they will not be seen on Saturdays or in cup games.

The proper comparison is with first-team squads around Europe. Only 37 per cent. of first-team squad players in the premier league hail from England. We are told that this is a competition, so what is the percentage in the other leagues? In La Liga, 61 per cent. of players are Spanish; in Serie A, 63 per cent. are Italian; in the Bundesliga, more than 50 per cent. are German; and in the French league, 62 per cent. are French. Those leagues seem to be competing on a different set of criteria. They seem to think that it is possible to have a successful league and national involvement.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the reasons why there are so many foreign players in Britain is that most foreign players want to play in the premiership, because it is considered the best competition and it is where they get the highest wages?

Mr. Duncan Smith: I shall come to the highest wages point in a second, but let us consider whether the premiership is the best competition. I looked at some of the overseas involvement—I know that this question has been around for a long time. Who actually plays from those countries? One would think that they would be the very best—in other words, that our teams would be packed with people who play for their national teams. Should we think that? Of the 15 Spanish players in the premiership, five play for their national side; of the three Italians, none play for their national side; of the 34 French in the league, only 12 play for their national side; and of the German eight, three play for their national side. My point is that if the situation were exactly as the hon. Gentleman suggests, we would have nothing but top-flight internationals, but some of the top players who play for countries such as Brazil do not choose to come to the premier league.

I am not damning the premier league, but I am saying that we allow that statement to go out as if it were set in stone and biblical—it is not. I do not believe that our league is considered by players as technically any better
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than the others. Let us dismiss the idea that, somehow, this is a fantastic league with which none of the others can compete. In spectacle, it may be—perhaps the television side is—but in technique and for the internationals, it is not.

If the premier league is doing so well, it must therefore be exporting talent to every country. Is not one of the things about businesses that they want a fantastic export record? We could not find any English players playing in any of the European top leagues at present, but I found that 12 Italians are playing in Spain, three are playing in France and three are playing in Germany, and that off a high base of those who are playing in their own home league.

The hon. Gentleman is on to a good point when he mentions salaries. I looked at the salaries and was quite shaken. When the premier league came into being, the salary base was £54 million. By 2006, it had risen to £605 million a year, which was a compound increase of more than 1,000 per cent. In comparison, the increase in the national economy was 67 per cent. So there has been a huge increase in salaries.

Okay, let us say that, as it is a competition, we have to compete; the others are paying massive salaries, too. So I looked at that, because businesses must compete—and, of course, keep their cost base down. However, I found that the others are not paying massive salaries. In fact, if salary bills are converted into euros, in 2005-06, the premier league paid €1,235 million in salaries. In Italy, the figure was €806 million; in Spain, it was €739 million; in France, it was €541 million; and in Germany, it was €578 million. Do they know something that we do not? Do they know something that means they can get away with paying much less for their football players yet still retain some of the great players in their leagues? I do not know what other hon. Members think, but I am not aware that anyone would accuse Serie A of being a substandard league. I remind Members that it produced the World cup winner, and it produced the champions league winner last year. I do not think that one can safely say that that league is worse than the premier league.

Too much nonsense has been chucked around about the premier league and about why we must not touch it, why we must not have this debate and why fans must accept the fact that we need such high participation by overseas players because it is good for the game. My concern is that we do not examine the situation properly or ask questions. The fact is that no one else seems to be competing in the marketplace in which we seem to have set ourselves.

The big questions are for those charged with running the game. Why have we not done an in-depth analysis of what is going peculiarly wrong with the game in England and even in some of the home countries, although, as I said earlier, some of that is being put right? Why is it that we simply do not study the facts and ask questions about training? Why have we not asked about the quality of training in England? Why have we allowed ourselves just to bumble along like Mr. Micawber, believing that something will turn up? That seems to be peculiarly English, and it is time that it stopped. That must happen for the sake of all those who pay huge amounts for season tickets and who want their clubs to do well but who—like me and, I believe, all hon. Members in
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this Chamber—also share a passion for the game and for their national side and a belief that football is not just about profit and loss.

Football is not just about our clubs doing well. It is also about wanting one of the home countries to go on and, even if not to win the World cup or the European cup, at least to get within striking distance regularly, as other countries so often seem to do. There is that terrible, constant shrugging of the shoulders every time that international competitions come around. We talk about our wonderful players only to find that they simply do not succeed. Yes, football is a business, but it is not just a business—there is much more to it than that.

9.49 am

Alan Keen (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing this debate. He is a football friend of mine, and it is worth noting that there are at least five Members waiting to take part in the debate who play football regularly, as he does.

In his summing up, the right hon. Gentleman asked who is running the game. That is one of the keys to this debate. About half the premiership is in foreign ownership, and those people certainly do not care too much about how the England side is affected by the decisions that they make when running their clubs. When I decided to participate in this debate, I did not want to talk just about the England side, because I did not want to repeat the clever words used by the right hon. Gentleman. Instead, I wanted to talk about the growing inequalities in the game, which stem from the decisions that have been made by those who run the premier league. We all admire football; we watch it every week. However, the people who take ownership of clubs, and therefore make the decisions that affect our national side, come into football for financial reasons. We should not be surprised that they make short-term decisions, which are not directed at the aims of those who care about football.

We have to do something about the problem. Whenever we have these debates, the media say, “What do Members of Parliament have to do with football?” The right hon. Gentleman said straight away that it is not MPs’ job to run football. However, it is our job to look after our constituents. It is our constituents who, on a weekly basis, pay money for subscriptions to Sky, and now Setanta, who go through the turnstiles and purchase merchandise such as shirts and everything else that young people enjoy so much. It is our constituents who pay those massive sums, which eventually go back into football. Obviously, it is a wonderful if young players come here from Africa and go back—of course, they do not always do so—as multi-millionaires 15 years later and can help others. That is excellent, and we all praise such work.

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