Sport in general and football in particular, has seen a huge increase in ‘foreign’ players with 36.1% of all players now being foreign and with 6 major
nations having in excess of 50% of their players classed as foreign (sports intelligence Jan2013). So it is not surprising that questions are now
being raised and murmurs are being heard in corners about the increase in the number of ‘foreigners’ playing in the various women’s leagues around
the world. The question is whether there should there be a cap on foreign players - though some national team managers blame their team’s performance
on a lack of home grown talent, thus necessitating the recruitment of foreign players.
The definition of a ‘foreign’ player is “one born outside that football association’s territory”. This is not a racist comment or derogatory word -
it is an explanation. With that clear, let’s focus on the situation at hand. The Women’s Football leagues around the world are growing and so we
are starting to see more and more players contracted from abroad to play for clubs. Historically players from the UK have gone to Australia to
play for their off season and the odd player has gone to America to play (but mainly for college/football) as well as Japan recruiting players
(within their cap allowances). What we are seeing now, is a significant shift to encourage moves around the world by players as the contracting
of foreign players is becoming a global market. When we spoke with Seattle Reign owner Bill Predmore for instance, he was very clear that he would
look to get the best players, irrespective of their nationality - and this is now a view being shared by more and more clubs around the world.
Rather than talk about them we thought it would be better to talk to ‘foreign’ players. Chelsea LFC have for some time championed ‘foreign’ players
and have been building something very interesting out of their base in Cobham. Chelsea were very gracious to us and allowed us not only access
to their training ground to watch them train, but also gave us access to their ‘foreign’ players to talk about the ‘where’s and why for’s’ of playing
abroad. This is not something they normally do and we are grateful for the access they gave us.
In talking to the various players there seemed to be a number of common themes that came out. Yes, football is a priority for them all, but actually
it was about the whole experience, not just football. As world cup winner Yuki Ogami said, “I want to learn from countries, their culture and football”.
Regarded as one of the best players in the world at the moment you may not have thought she would say that, and that it was just about football.
However, in all the time with her and the others it was very clear that for all of these women this is about experiencing the whole package.
One of the comments that has been made is that ‘foreign’ players are outsiders, ‘hired guns’ here to do a job - yet the attitude of the players I spoke
to challenges that view full on. The ‘foreign players’ realise that to be better, to learn and grow, is about immersing themselves in that world.
The benefit of this to the team and the fans is you then have a skilled ‘foreign’ player who is absorbing all the country has to offer, whilst
learning more about football - and I would argue being a better footballer because of it. Why? Because they want to be there, because they are
soaking it all up, because they are enjoying it and not because they are merely on a payroll.
Self-development and growth are key to all of the players as well. For the younger ones it is about being away from home and the challenges this brings
on a practical level - from washing to cooking, etc., through to friends and family and the improvement of their skills and understanding of football
for all of them.
It seems like it is a virtuous circle, the best want to get better and so they challenge themselves by going to new countries and growing, yet the
reason they are growing is because they have a drive to be better and push themselves. This leads to opportunities that make them better people
and because they are better people doing what they love, they are better footballers. Show me one athlete in the world who is at their best when
they are unhappy….
Commitment is another common theme amongst the players; all players are there because they are good and because they are committed.Listen for example
to Yuki who has learned three languages on her quest or Jackie Groenen who drove two hours each way each day for four years to train: they are
meeting and tackling all these other things that athletes in that country take for granted, and are still growing. This rubs off on the team, of
course it does. Players push a little harder, maybe learn some words in another language and want to succeed a little more in the company of people
The final observation is that not one of the players said they were here to show everyone else what to do, despite being very good at what they do.
Through our conversations it emerged that they thought they had things they could show the others and that there were things they felt they brought
to the benefit of the team - but this took time to come out. These aren’t prima-donnas, these are humble, but excellent athletes, here to learn
and not to force their way on others. In so doing, others want to learn and benefit from their knowledge. There are Olympians, World Cup winners,
league winners, and they bring experience from the best leagues in the world. Of course there is much to learn and impart and yet their desire
is to learn from others. This is what makes the good great and benefits everyone.
So, it can be argued that many ‘foreign’ players bring a wealth of experience and knowledge both to and from teams and clubs around the world. They
aim to embed themselves in the culture and football of the country. They grow and the players around them grow, they are striving to be the best
and play the best and this rubs off on everyone around them. As Jackie Groenen said “….it’s important for athletes to learn new things,
get away from what you know, it gets you out of habits and makes you better.” Who wouldn’t want to play alongside such remarkable world-class players
- and one thing is for sure, it’s impossible not to learn from people like that.
It does mean that maybe a few Japanese, Swedish, South Korean or Dutch phrase books will be purchased, but there is growth again! So bring on the global
transfer market in women’s football and as long as the above remains the ethos for ‘foreign’ players, everyone benefits. Emma Wilhelmsen sums it
up best: “....they (Chelsea) have eyes on players outside England all the time. You must have this for each team; it makes a higher level of Football.”
Editors note: a huge thanks to the team at Chelsea for their hospitality and for allowing us such access.