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Why aren't there more Englishmen playing abroad?

Iain Macintosh
May 30, 2014
Tom Ince's possible move to Italy with Serie A club Inter Milan is a decision that most of his fellow countrymen wouldn't make © PA Photos
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Having excelled at second-tier Blackpool for two and a half years, 22-year-old Thomas Ince might have expected a certain gradient of career progression. Crystal Palace, where he spent five months on loan this year, was certainly an option. Cardiff City, whose interest nearly led to a move last summer, was another. Instead, Ince finds himself in Milan, negotiating terms with Italian giants Internazionale. That, you have to say, is a bit of a result.

If Ince completes his move, he will become the latest member of a very small, select group, a league of extraordinary English footballers who actually had the courage to try their luck overseas.

Ince will be the first English player to make a full transfer to Serie A in 11 years, the last being Jay Bothroyd at Perugia. In his brief stay in Italy, Bothroyd enjoyed new experiences, scored five times and became such close friends with his teammate Al-Saadi Gadaffi that the then-Libyan dictator's son paid for his honeymoon in LA and Hawaii. Yet despite these rewards, the only Englishman to play in Serie A since was David Beckham with his two loan spells at AC Milan.

The last high-profile English player to give La Liga a crack was the wayward ex-Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant. The famous "Beckham Law," a tax break designed to lure the cream of foreign executives to Spain, enabled Pennant to effectively earn £80,000 a week, a wage far in advance of what anyone with any sense might have paid him in England. Pennant put the money to good use, buying a Porsche with the registration plate "P33NNT" and then, according to Spanish paper Marca at least, forgetting that he owned it and leaving it parked outside a train station for six months.

The reticence of English players to opt for a life abroad is all the more baffling when you consider the situation at home, where a rapid, unhindered influx of foreign players to the Premier League has left them a minority in their own teams. Football Association chairman Greg Dyke believes the situation to be so serious that he has proposed flooding the lower leagues with competitive B teams just to provide young English players with some first-team football. Yet so few English players have discovered the far simpler solution: If the foreigners are coming over here and taking our jobs, why not go over there and take theirs?

England's 2014 World Cup squad has just one "foreign"-based player, reserve goalkeeper Fraser Forster, plucked from the exotic heartlands of Glasgow. In 2010, there were none. In 2006, Beckham was at Real Madrid, and Owen Hargreaves didn't really count as he had never played in England anyway.

It must be said that there is no direct correlation between international success and a diaspora of players. Italy, after all, won the 2006 World Cup with an entirely home-based squad, though it was also an entirely home-based squad that crashed out in the group stages four years later.

Nevertheless, it's hard to argue that a squad wouldn't be complemented by players with a wider knowledge of tactics and techniques.

Few other nations share England's clinginess. Germany, whose entirely home-based squad of 2010 contained 12 players aged 24 or under, now have seven players in their provisional squad signed to foreign clubs. Spain have 13 of 30 who work away from home. A whopping 15 of France's 23-man squad live beyond their borders. Even Italy have three players with PSG now. Everyone else is doing it. Everyone except the English.

The only foreign league the English have been brave enough to frequent in any quantity is MLS, where the likes of Jermain Defoe, Nigel Reo-Coker and Bradley Wright-Phillips are currently flourishing. But there, of course, the language is the same, and the only cultural difference is in the size of the puddings.

David Beckham is a rare example of an Englishman who thrived abroad, as he played for Real Madrid, AC Milan, LA Galaxy and PSG © Getty Images
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The prospect of a new life in Europe can be daunting, especially when you were raised in a nation where speaking a foreign language can be considered as unnecessarily flamboyant as wearing a golden crown on the bus. Michael Owen was so intimidated by it all when he played for Real Madrid that he would drive every day to the airport to buy English newspapers, unaware that there were kiosks right outside his hotel and all across the city that provided the same service.

But it can be done. Steve McManaman immersed himself in the same city with ease, quickly learning the language and enthusiastically embracing the culture. Jonathan Woodgate, a man known as "Village" (short for "Village Idiot") at Leeds United, was fluent within a year and won the Madridistas over by combining his clear desire to assimilate with a devoted fight for fitness.

Ian Rush strenuously denies ever saying that living in Italy was "like living in a foreign country," but it's an entirely appropriate, albeit apocryphal line. Ince, should his move to Inter go through, will face great challenges in Europe, all the more testing because he'll move there with his partner and baby daughter. He will need to learn the language and integrate quickly; he'll need to make new friends; and, aside from all of that, he'll need to prove that he's as good at football as Inter obviously think.

But whether this move works out for him or not, he should be commended simply for giving it a go. He's already shown more courage than most of his compatriots.

Iain Macintosh is the UK Football Correspondent for The New Paper in Singapore, writer for ESPN and the co-author of "Football Manager Stole My Life" from @backpagepress. You can follow him on Twitter at @iainmacintosh

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