The problems of England and its football team won't be solved by bashing migrants

Greg Dyke, David Cameron and Ed Milband are united in blaming migrants for our troubles. But stopping immigration will do nothing for the England football team - and even less for England.

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Everything is everyone else’s fault, isn’t it? Just as in 2010, a second successive general election gets under way under an economic cloud with immigration apparently high on everyone’s agenda.

As political parties and the public alike struggle to come to terms with a UK grappling with the impacts of the eastern flight of globalised industry, high public and private debt, an unbalanced financial sector and shortages of quality housing and employment, immigration offers an easy scapegoat on which to blame the country’s woes.

Whether or not the point about immigration being ‘too high’ (Ed Miliband’s words) is legitimate or not is scarcely up for debate now, with all the major parties apparently settling around a lazy consensus that says the country would be better if fewer people arrived here from elsewhere. And yet the policies offered as solutions would scarcely have an impact on this perceived problem, beyond their value as dog whistle attempts to stem any flow of votes towards UKIP.

David Cameron and the Conservative party have spent their time in government grandstanding about ‘welfare tourism’ and making life difficult for would-be non-EU migrants, when the bulk of the ‘hundreds of thousands’ of people who contribute to net-immigration are workers from within the EU. Labour’s now notorious ‘pledge card’ commitment to establish (additional) ‘controls on immigration’, branded so obnoxiously upon a souvenir mug this week, is a similarly unctuous attempt to appear tough on the overstated issue of welfare tourism. And yet, with the claimant rate among immigrants (at any length of residency) a mere 3%, a two year embargo on benefits for new migrants will achieve little of substance beyond upsetting the party’s base and activists.

Meanwhile, with the insipid performances of the England football team over recent years mirroring the bleak outlook for the country as a whole, the good old boys at the Football Association are matching the politicians by coming up with the same excuses as their counterparts at Westminster. Greg Dyke, the chairman of the FA, last week attempted to resurrect his unpopular commission into the English national team’s persistent failure by re-emphasising his radical conclusion: it’s all foreigners’ fault.

And just like Miliband and Cameron, Dyke has offered insubstantial policy solutions which might make him sound tough on immigrants coming over here and taking our £50,000 a week contracts and lucrative boot deals, but will do nothing to address the root causes of England’s decline on the world stage. Dyke wants to tighten up the visa requirements for non-EU footballers to make it harder for Premier League clubs to fill up their squads with low quality foreign players at the expense of home grown talent.

By his own estimations, the proposed new visa criteria would have seen a grand total of 42 non-EU players’ work permit applications rejected over the past five years - or slightly fewer than 1.4 foreign players per each of the 31 teams that have competed in the Premier League since the 2009/2010 season. Dyke points to the recent successes of Tottenham’s London-born Harry Kane as an indication of the unfulfilled potential of frustrated young English players who ‘just can’t get a game’ due to the massed ranks of overseas imports blocking their development. But rather than the expensive international stars such as Robert Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor who delayed Kane’s promotion to Spurs’ first team, the insignificant signings Dyke’s proposals would affect would be those such as Ryo Miyaichi by Arsenal (who has made one league appearance for the Gunners to date), Brek Shea by Stoke (three appearances) and Mame Biram Diouf by Manchester United (five games for United). The causes of England’s recent under-performance at international tournaments may be manifold, but Mame Biram Diouf is not one of them.

Rather than seeking to address a problem that isn’t there with a proposal that wouldn’t affect it anyway, Dyke and his commission would do better to focus on longer term solutions. These might include upgrading the oversubscribed and often waterlogged youth facilities and playing fields around the country, or unlocking the TV wealth from the super-rich Premier League elite so that it could be better shared with smaller clubs who have more to gain from nurturing young players. The FA might also consider addressing the fact that there are about a tenth as many qualified coaches in England as in Spain and Germany, or finding ways to reap the potential of footballers who are released by professional academies at the age of 16 and 18. Additionally, Dyke could find value in doing more to develop talent in underrepresented demographic groups, such as British Asians, women (both as players in the female game and as coaches in men’s and women’s football), and, according to the Soccernomics authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, middle class boys.

Such a five point programme - investing in better infrastructure, reducing inequality, developing skills and training, realising the potential of young people rather than throwing them on the scrapheap, and extending opportunities to all sections of society - would likely bring the FA far more success than offering ineffective proposals to bash foreigners. And it would look much better on a prospective government’s pledge card too. 

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