06/23/2014 02:20 pm ET Updated Aug 23, 2014

Blaming England's World Cup Defeat on "Too Many Foreigners" Is Dangerous Nonsense


You might think that England crashing out of the soccer World Cup after only two games is a private misery into which you would not dream of intruding. Undoubtedly we are disappointed, but most of us intend to keep calm and carry on. But there is a more worrying response emanating from the UK, which should give everyone pause for thought.

Even before the World Cup started, the Football Association (FA), which is responsible for the governance of the game in England and for the national team, claimed that there were too many foreigners playing in England for the good of the national team. Among other things the report proposed that limitations should be placed on visas granted to non-EU players (migration from within the EU cannot be restricted) and that clubs should be required to field more players trained by the clubs themselves.

This is dangerous nonsense. Nonsense because the performance of the England team has actually improved in the 20 years since the end of restrictions on player mobility, and dangerous because xenophobia is on the rise, not just in the UK but in Europe as a whole.

What many people forget is that since England's one and only World Cup victory, at home in 1966, the performance of the national team has failed to live up to English expectations. On average England has ranked between fifth and 15th in the world, and its results have tended to be in line with that ranking. In the 1970s and 80s (when the English leagues consisted almost entirely of Brits) the performance was much worse than it is today -- failure to qualify at all was not unusual.

When a ruling by the European Court of Justice in 1995 gave players within the EU freedom of movement there began a significant process of cross border movement. In England the share of foreign players rose from around 33 percent to 66 percent. Since then, the performance of the England team has improved measurably, qualifying more often and usually progressing further (see here for details). Even this year's disappointing result needs some context: England, ranked 10th by FIFA, were beaten by the margin of a single goal by Italy -- ranked ninth -- and Uruguay -- ranked seventh. The results went to the form book.

Moreover, the trend toward increasing internationalism is shared among all the top European leagues. Germany, something of a benchmark for the English who aspire to their success, has about 50 percent of its top league made up of foreigners. Spain, until this World Cup the gold standard of international soccer, has 40 percent of players from abroad in its top league. England is a little higher largely because the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, who are all presently citizens of the UK, constitute foreigners for the purposes of soccer -- the UK being granted for historical reasons the right to field four national teams.

The flaws in the FA's analysis of the problem would not be so worrying were it not for the broader issue of immigration and the way that it is feeding nationalist isolationism, not just in the UK but in Europe as a whole. As the recent European elections a British nationalist party that aspires to leave the European Union (UKIP) ran a poster campaign with the slogan, "26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?" -- with a finger pointing at its audience.

Britain has a long and honorable tradition of openness to migration -- indeed, one would be hard-pressed to identify anyone who is truly "indigenous." Migration helps to create a variety of opinion and originality of thought that is sometimes lacking among more stable populations. Much the same is true of soccer. Good players develop when they are exposed to best practice from around the world, which is precisely what foreign players bring to the English leagues. Anyone who has followed the English Premier League for the last 20 years can testify to the remarkable improvement in the quality of play.

The English Premier League is also the richest in the world -- its income next year is forecast to be double that of its nearest rival, which also means a lot more money spent on player training and development. The failure, if anything, is that too many of the players developed in England stay in the country, preferring to play in lower level English leagues rather than go abroad. While most international players speak two or more languages, most English players are steadfastly monolingual. For a nation whose history is so steeped in international affairs, its soccer players seem remarkably stay-at-home. Instead of trying insulate us from exposure to foreign ways, the FA would do better to spend some time promoting the benefits of overseas experience to young English players.