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As the Premier League draws to a close of the season, it’s not just the home fans who will miss their weekly dose of English football action.

The Premier League has fans across the globe, with the overseas market now worth almost as much in TV revenues as its domestic equivalent. But what is powering this worldwide appeal and is it actually a good thing for English football?

The goal for overseas players

The days when Liverpool FC consisted of local Liverpool lads and Manchester United were ‘made in Manchester’ are long gone. The Premier League has become one of the biggest leagues in the world, and as such it has become the ultimate career goal for players from all corners of the globe.

According to TransferMarket UK, foreign players accounted for 64.4% of the minutes played in the Premier League in the 2019-20 season. Only Burnley (71.8%) Southampton (52.1%) and Bournemouth (52.0%) used home-grown players for more minutes than their overseas counterparts, with Man City (18.9%), Arsenal (18.7%) and Wolves (11.5%) predominantly using foreign talent.

How do we compare to other leagues?

International Centre for Sports Studies’ (CIES) Football Observatory reported that the Premier League is third in Europe, behind Cyprus and Turkey, when it comes to foreign players, and given that Cyprus only has a population roughly the size of Birmingham to choose from, they hardly count.

More comparable countries, such as Greece, Germany, Italy, and Portugal only use around 50% of foreign players. English Premier League clubs only have to register eight homegrown players in their 25-man squads, with the remaining 17 places available to overseas players.

Foreign players attract foreign fans

Besides attracting the cream of the crop when it comes to overseas players, the Premier League clubs also benefit from the fans these stars bring with them. It is estimated that 46% of broadcasting revenue now comes from foreign broadcasters. In 2019-20, this brought in a staggering £4.35bn, which was particularly welcome with domestic TV revenues falling.

The multi-national squads of the Premier League world also drive an entire soccer economy, from Finnish fans having a flutter on Unibet to supporters buying shirts in Singapore. Add in the enormous cash boost from overseas investors wanting a trophy club to match their lavish lifestyle, and it’s clear that foreign money is a driving force in the English game.

Why is this a problem?

Great players, lots of income, and a reputation as one of the best leagues in the world are all good for the game, but it doesn’t help the next generation or the national side. Talent scouts now operate worldwide, finding future stars like Gabriel Veron, and with so many global players coming into domestic football, even the best homegrown talent can find it hard to secure a regular place in the first team.

This has led to the bizarre situation where the national selectors are left picking players for the England team who don’t even make it into their own club side. While 220 players started games for Premiership sides in the first week of the 2019-20 season, only 37% of these qualified to play for England. And as the season progressed, transfers and summer signings reduced this number even further.

What is the future?

Given the money involved, it is unlikely that the ratio of overseas players in the Premier League will change any time soon. That said, with the UK leaving the EU, European players will no longer enjoy the same freedom of movement and automatic right to work that they have previously had, so a new agreement will need to be struck with the immigration authorities. Of course, with Brazil supplying no less than 466 players for the European leagues, being outside the EU is clearly not a deal-breaker.

Chris Darwen
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