Foreign Affairs

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Another A-League season is upon us and people’s hunger for the start of the national competition after the famine of the long off-season is at an all-time high. Most sides have completed their squad lists with a smattering of youth, experience, imports, as well as some returning Aussies from abroad.

Whilst there has been no repeat of last year’s headline-stealing signing of Alessandro Del Piero, it will still be exciting to see returning Socceroos Nathan Burns, Michael Zullo, Matt McKay and Harry Kewell strutting their undoubted class around the league again.

However, one issue that seems to crop up from time to time and not only in the A-League but world football is the signings of foreigners and the impact it has on local development. In big European leagues such as the English Premier League and Italy’s Serie A it has become an issue that many feel is impacting negatively on their talent pool. How much of an issue is it for the A-league though? Where do we stack up in the employment of visa players?

England has begun to delve more and more deeply into the role of foreign players in their club teams and the perceived role it has in the dilution of local talent coming through at national level. Former Southampton great and now pundit for Sky Sports, Matt Le Tissier, commented recently on the issue.

“Our academies are filling up with kids from abroad,” he said. “First teams are full of top players from the Continent on big money, and more Premier League clubs than ever are under foreign ownership.”

Le Tissier’s sentiments are backed up with the astonishing figure that from the EPL club’s lists around 70% of the playing list are foreign signings. That averages out as a whopping eighteen players per club. He went on to point out how although foreign involvement may be good short-term, it doesn’t translate long-term as foreigners will not be as concerned with the local development side of things.

The A-League, still in it’s infancy and with various squad limitations, isn’t anywhere near that figure of the EPL with squad lists being made up of close to 27% visa signings, or almost 6 per club.

An argument is often made that the presence of quality foreign players forces the standard of the local players to lift as the competition for places in a team is intensified. The keyword though is quality. Italian coaching legend Marcello Lippi echoed this point.

“I don’t have any problems with it if a team buys an important foreign player. But if they’re buying someone foreign just because he has a different passport, I can not support it.”

Serie A has worryingly for people such as Lippi reached a level of 53.6% or fifteen foreigners per club. It even forced the previous Under-21 manager, Ciro Ferrara to have to delve into Serie B and C to fill his squad. As mentioned before, these figures dwarf that of the A-League but of course they are dealing with much bigger squads also. Extended squads can be more forgiving of poor signings.

Herein lies the problem faced in the A-League. Such limited places operating under a salary cap means every squad position counts. However are certain clubs looking at the foreign quota as a mandatory number they must reach? Even the Western Sydney Wanderers were granted extra foreign places in order to help them be competitive in their debut season. As it turned out they didn’t need to use all the foreign spots they were afforded but it did send the message that there wasn’t the faith in local players to provide the depth to mount a competitive campaign.

In a league without promotion or relegation governed with egalitarian ideals from the powers that be, you would think that the conditions to bring through talented local players were more than favourable. There are clubs such as Perth Glory and Newcastle Jets who have bucked the trend this season and go into the season with only three foreign signings. These two clubs have made a point to provide a platform for the next generation and do not feel they are sacrificing results to do so.

Glory front-man Shane Smeltz recently wrote of the importance of the younger players in his column for the Sunday Times.

“They are talented and ambitious and will be out to prove themselves in this league and that’s what we want. At the end of the day we will need a strong squad. It’s not like we won’t rely on our young players, in fact we are going to need them all season.”

Jet’s head coach, Gary van Egmond stated at the HAL launch that he believed the growth of his young chargers over the last twelve months has put his side in a strong position going into this season.

“Now you notice they’re not young boys at training anymore, they’re senior players. Everyone is pushing each other for a position and we have a lot of depth.”

A five player limit of visa signings seems about right especially when you do look at other leagues around the world. Comparable leagues such as the MLS and J-League approach the issue from a differing stance from one another. The MLS has a 43.6% foreign player representation on their lists or 13 players per squad, while the J-League is a low 13.4% or 4 players per squad list. Arguments can be made for both approaches and which way a league goes largely depends on the specific needs and conditions of each particular football environment.

Australian football is faced with the conundrum of building a strong competitive league whilst trying to balance developing the next generation by providing a pathway via the national competition. However, football is a results business and every club has a responsibility to their fans to put out the strongest team possible so getting this right is tricky and often not achieved.

This is where scouting is so crucial to the clubs from the juniors running around state leagues to finding hidden gems from abroad like Thomas Broich, Marcos Flores, and Marcelo Carrusca to name but a few. Growth of the league will continue with both prudent signings of visa players and a large degree of faith being put in the young local players coming through.

Season 2013/14 promises to shed more light on if we are as a collective traveling down the right path. One thing for sure is it will be exciting to see who will leave their mark on the new A-league season.

Adam Howard

Adam is one of the founders of Football Central and the creator of OSAussies.com.  He has followed the career paths of Australian footballers playing in leagues all over the world.  Born in Adelaide and currently residing in Hiroshima, Adam brings a unique perspective to Australian football.  He is an ardent supporter of Australia's domestic competition and national team.

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