Yesterday Stephen Gerrard joined the fray in calling for some sort of quota system restricting the number of foreign players in the Premier League. What can have influenced his judgment? Could it be the sheer mediocrity of many of the foreigners he has played alongside at Liverpool that has blinded him to the valuable contribution many of the imports have made? Would he, I wonder, be as well disposed towards some sort of quota system should it scupper a future move to AC Milan or Real Madrid, were Italy and Spain to also introduce some measures to “protect” their national teams?
There certainly appears to be a groundswell of opinion growing surrounding the matter of imposing quotas on foreign players in football. This week Michel Platini and Steve Coppell joined Sepp Blatter, Alex Ferguson and others in supporting restrictions on foreigners in the game, mainly on the grounds that it will help the development of indigenous talent. This is bollocks, of course, and the matter shouldn’t need detain us for long. Do we really think that those English players who do break through to Premier League level are anything other than vastly improved by the fact that they play alongside and against superior foreign talent? It seems so blindingly obvious to me, but so it goes. Presumably those calling for quotas are sincere in believing that such moves will remove those foreigners currently blocking out our native talent and so allow more Wayne Rooneys to grace the top flight of the game, but that begs the question “why are the foreign players here in the first place?” I am equally as certain that such moves will just guarantee our teams are cluttered up with more Ben Thatchers and similar and so protect their exalted positions. Certainly, looking back to a time before the influx of foreigners into the game I can’t exactly remember a surplus of homegrown Rooneys; rather my memory is littered with grim visions of a legion of Thatchers, and sub-Thatchers. It seems clear to me that regarding the quality of the players – if not the entertainment – we are much better off these days (and incidentally, my antipathy towards Ben is purely down to his very average performances while playing for my club, and not because of his surname, although that probably didn’t engender my instant respect.)
Perhaps more complex is the whole matter of players’ wages, but there was a similar almost-consensus the other week when, with David Beckham now more or less out of sight and out of mind, John Terry assumed the mantel of being the footballer-most-likely to be used to criticise footballers’ salaries in the Premier League. Sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe apparently “slammed” the “obscene” salary of John Terry and others; although as is often the case when it is reported than someone “slams” something, rather than making an orchestrated attack on the subject Sutcliffe probably just fielded a reasonable question by providing a reasonable answer. What was the response from the very highly paid world of football to the question of whether John Terry and other footballers are too highly paid? Well, Gordon Taylor of the PFA said, “every labourer is worth his hire and Mr Abramovich thinks he’s worth it.” Chelsea boss Avram Grant countered, “everybody likes to speak about the money of the footballers. Why does nobody speak about singers who get more money in one year than any player?” Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson similarly said, “there are some tennis players and golfers earning enormous amounts of money. Is that wrong?” while Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger correctly pointed out that “we are in an economy where the company decides who pays who and how much and we have to respect that.” All is true, but all avoid the question of whether or not football players’ wages are obscene, and the simple answer to that is “yes, of course they are.” Or, if not exactly obscene, then certainly a bit daft.
Personally I have no major objection to the top players earning such daft sums. There is a shed load of money in football at the moment, and when you get a unique talent like a Wayne Rooney being competed for by a number of clubs with pots of cash then there is only one way the price is going to go; that’s just the way it is. I’m actually much less comfortable with journeymen like the aforementioned Ben Thatcher who, while poorer than Rooney, is still mega-rich. Despite having played for many teams, I’ll bet no football fan has ever welcomed Thatcher on arrival at their club, or mourned his passing; his existence in the Premier League is seemingly more down to every team needing 11 players and the league needing 20 teams; and he’s not all that bad you know, I mean I suppose he’ll do. Quite why such a bog standard talent should benefit from being (theoretically) in the same market as someone like Rooney I’m not too sure, but it seems he does. This is something I think is more obscene, if obscene is the right word; Thatcher being quite rich, rather than Rooney or Terry being stupidly rich.
But even regarding top players like John Terry, I do think it is interesting to consider just what forces have led them to their massive income. There is hard work obviously, the drive and ambition to succeed that will have led other similarly gifted or more talented players to fall by the wayside, and that is to be applauded; however hard work is only a part of it. Putting in the same hours as a cricketer, or a chartered surveyor, would result in a far more meagre reward for Terry, no matter how hard he worked; part of the reason for Terry’s wealth is the good fortune that comes from being able in a field that has so much money swirling around it. To that stroke of luck you can add another other stoke of luck, that of Terry having a natural talent for football in the first place; no matter how hard I work at my football I will never be good enough to play anywhere other than my back garden, even the local rec is beyond me. And returning to all that hard work Terry must have put in to get where he is today, even then that “drive and ambition” I mentioned earlier must surely be part nature, part nurture. In summary, then, Terry’s salary is down to being blessed with a natural talent (luck), in a very well rewarded sport (luck) alongside his own efforts (partly luck). Well good luck to him I say.
What to do? Well in the first instance, nothing. I would much prefer for Terry and others to earn the money they do than for there to be some individual salary cap or maximum wage, either in sport or in the wider economy; but this is where taxation comes in, and where for me one of the better cases can be made for a redistributive – or at least a more progressive – tax system. Critics of income redistribution often deride their opponents as envious whingers who moan childishly about redressing society’s “unfairness”; in contrast it is said that taking from the hardworking and giving to the feckless is, well, “unfair”. But as I have said, being hard working is only one of the variables that has led John Terry to his riches, and I don’t think that footballers are a unique case; luck can come in many forms. It is worth saying at this point that I am far from convinced that tax should be used for redistributive purposes, to simply take from the rich to hand to the poor; rather I can see the sense in the rich paying proportionally more in tax than the poor simply because they can more easily afford to, although I concede that in practice they are probably pretty much the same thing.
Have we come all this way just to read a defence of progressive taxation? Well yes, I reckon, it certainly looks that way to me, that and as an excuse for me to make use of the title “Terry’s All Gold”; but sometimes I just feel that the self-evident needs to be evidenced, or something, and we’ve had fun along the way, haven’t we? All I guess I’m trying to say, if I’m even trying to say anything, is that while some people may complain about Premier League salaries, the alternative to footballers – yes, and singers, tennis players, golfers and others – earning vast sums seems to involve unpleasant things like dictatorship and authoritarianism; far better to happily let such people earn their silly money in the first place. But then, rather than bluster that they simply deserve their subsequent wealth, they should accept their good fortune and realise that it’s not unreasonable for them to pay back through taxation a share of what they owe the system that allowed them to earn such absurd amounts of money in the first place. Fair’s fair.
Oh, and as for the matter of quotas for foreigners; footballers – and all other workers while we’re at it – should pretty much be able to work wherever the hell they like; don’t you think?