Matt Scott: From Scottish secessionism to English protectionism – divorce seldom helps the kids

Scotland goes to the polls today to decide whether to break with the most successful political union in the history of the world. England and Scotland have been bound in statutory togetherness since March 1, 1707. Yet a decision to end that economic and political union – so powerful that it once dominated the globe in an age of empire – could come within the next 24 hours. 

If the schism takes place it would be down to naked nationalism: the separatists assemble under the banner of the Scottish National Party. Indeed, their secessionism is not unique. There is a global vogue for nationalism everywhere from the Basque and Catalan regions of Spain to the Flemish-speaking segment of Belgium to the Russian-influenced Crimea. There is even a movement for change in Texas in the United States.

Football has not been immune to this nationalist clamour. The chairman of the Football Association in England, Greg Dyke, is this week pushing for new British-government rules to cut in half the numbers of those playing in English football competitions from without the European Union. There is a very strong sense that, were those pesky European labour laws not to stand in his way, Dyke would use the English Channel, the North and Irish Seas and Hadrian’s Wall as natural barriers for players’ entry into English football.

Dyke’s pronouncements are the latest details to emerge from the grand plan in his FA Chairman’s Commission report released in May. This column’s view is that it as flawed a piece of regulatory interventionism as Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot’s decision in 1916 to delineate Middle East borders with a ruler [see related article below].

Here are the key points to Dyke’s most recent plan:

1. For players signing for English clubs to come from FIFA’s top-50-ranked nations, down from the top-70, and for them to have played 75% of their nations’ competitive internationals in the prior two years.

2. To reduce the number of qualifying internationals to 30% for players from the top-30-ranked nations.

3. For those who cost £10 million or more to qualify automatically, irrespective of nationality or international experience.

It is Dyke’s desire, quite reasonably, to improve the quality of the England team. But his suggestions demonstrate that he is clumsily yanking at some heavy levers to achieve an airy goal, such that he may distort the current landscape and impede his own objective. It might seem expedient to Dyke and his advisers to raise the bar to entry to foreign players but have they applied the law of unintended consequences to their considerations? I suspect not.

First of all it is worth considering why players from other nationalities seek to come to England. It is, obviously, because of the money on offer. This is because English football can offer more in salaries than elsewhere, because of the success of its competitions domestically and internationally. The Premier League has proved hugely attractive to overseas viewers. In 2004 the international broadcast agreement was worth £108 million a year. Ten years later, in the 2013-14 season, that had grown to £745 million, a compound annual growth rate of 17%.

Certainly one of the inputs in that staggering growth is the preponderance of players from other regions around the world. With icons of their own national game competing in England’s top division, Africans, east Asians and north Americans can view it also as “their” league, and the clubs have encouraged that perspective. When the South Korean Ji-Sung Park became too ineffective to play for Manchester United they did not replace him with the Netherlands’ Wesley Schneijder, for instance, but with Japan’s Shinji Kagawa. Such players have helped drive Manchester United’s commercial success in the ASEAN region to the extent that they achieve £9 million a year in sponsorship from a noodle maker that wants its name associated with the club. Such examples illustrate English football’s economic imperative to fling open the doors to other cultures.

Sure, it is true that due to the fee involved in signing Kagawa, under Dyke’s criteria he would still qualify to play at Old Trafford. But this fact also undermines Dyke’s objective. Dyke hopes to limit entry to players of the “highest calibre”. Yet by waiving criteria for clubs who pay £10 million and more in fees he destroys his own logic. The fee paid does not necessarily reflect the quality of the player purchased. It seems clear to me what Dyke’s decision will do: incentivise clubs to raise the fees they pay for desirable players from non-qualifying countries to £10 million and more. What effect this will have on finances in England’s second-tier Championship, where profligacy is already routine, is just as obvious.

Moreover the bar for qualifying countries is arbitrary, and the number of non-qualifiers vast. Of the top-50 sides in the FIFA rankings, only six feature from the entire continent of Africa. Australia’s World Cup participants do not currently feature either. So what of Leeds United’s Champions League semi-finalists in 2000-1, with the Australians Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell and the South African Lucas Radebe? Were those players not of the “highest calibre”?

Dyke’s anti-immigrant rhetoric is populist guff that serves no purpose. His primary impulse appears to be his concern at the lack of a pathway for the cream of English talent to the top of the international game. But the sensitive regulations of the Premier League are far more pragmatic and effective. A reduction in the squad size while increasing the requirement to hire home-grown talent have diminished the incentive to hothouse youngsters on the off chance they might come good. Consequently, the number of young English players left atrophying in the stands come match-day at Premier League grounds has fallen. Meanwhile, Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Theo Walcott, Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers, John Stones, Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck – for instance – have all staked recent claims for international selection while developing at the top tercile of English clubs.

Surely it is better to have a third of all players (roughly 170 of them: plenty to fill an England team) in the most highly regarded league in the world than to implement quotas that might erode the quality of the league without any guarantee to serve the primary objective of improving English international prospects?

The populist parallels are there for all to see. In his quest for his place in history, has Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party’s leader, really considered the unintended consequences of secession in a modern, highly liquid global economy? Considered what capital flight can do to a nation’s wealth and trade?

This global trend for revolution over evolution worries me – I would much prefer to see a stable and lasting grand bargain between the Scottish and English in their shared economic interest than to serve the ambitions of a grasping politician and his cohorts.

They say the definition of a statesman is one who cares not only for himself but also for his grandchildren. As such Dyke should act for the longer term. He should act collegiately, encouraging the Premier League clubs to apply even more resource to setting up the best coaching and youth-development facilities and structures so that England may one day boast the best players as well as the most-watched league.

If Dyke’s political instincts were sound, this is what he would do. Like those of so many of his contemporaries, however, sadly it seems they are not.

Related article:

Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at moc.l1718467427labto1718467427ofdlr1718467427owedi1718467427sni@t1718467427tocs.1718467427ttam1718467427.