By Jay Jaffa
The Premier League's assertion that it is the “best league in the world” continues to cause debate and consternation amongst football fans and pundits on these shores and abroad. Ultimately, such semantics do not really matter - the bottom line is that the domestic product is supposed to be entertaining and, for the majority of its time under the Sky umbrella, it has been.
It took a while, but after a number of restrictions were abolished and the passing of laws such as the Bosman rule were introduced, English clubs had the freedom and resources to pursue whatever path they so desired. Indeed it was after a 1995 ruling that helped scrap Uefa's three-foreigner limit that European clubs could import players from exotic locations – much the reason for the multi-national competitions we can watch these days.
Ironically the most successful team of the last 21 years has been Manchester United and that is largely thanks to the once-in-a-lifetime British 'golden generation' Sir Alex Ferguson inherited at the start of his reign at Old Trafford. But they remain the exception, as well as the beacon every other club has tried to overthrow via the now-conventional method of purchasing talent.
Further irony still shows that despite such a strong generation of British footballers, this did not translate to the international scene, where only one semi-final appearance at Euro 96 was the highlight for the England national team.
|WHAT LA ROJA IS COOKING
Spaniards' ratings last weekend
|MICHU v West Brom
|ARTETA v Everton
|PABLO HERNANDEZ v West Brom
|CAZORLA v Everton
|ANGEL RANGEL v West Brom
|CHICO v West Brom
As the Premier League led the way financially – as it has done for most of its existence – dangerous precedents were set. A core of British footballers were almost cast aside in favour of more professional, cheap foreign options. This, of course, makes perfect sense – clubs were spending lower fees on a decidedly better product and that remains true to this day.
Ahead of Swansea's trip to Arsenal on Saturday we are reminded of the product of such a swing in the habits of British clubs. The Premier League is many things, but it has been on point with a number of football trends – again, probably to the detriment of domestic growth.
It is no coincidence that as many as six Spanish players could take to the field at the Emirates. The Spanish are of course, world and double European champions, following an unprecedented run of success dating back to 2008. In that time, the value placed on Iberian virtues has multiplied, as much down to the success of the all-conquering Barcelona team of Pep Guardiola and La Roja.
The Nou Camp model has been used as the blueprint for clubs all over Europe and anyone in north London on Saturday afternoon is likely to bare witness to one of the modern purveyors of the system. Brendan Rodgers may not be in charge of Swansea anymore, while Roberto Martinez may now be at Wigan, but the pair laid the groundwork for an exceptionally entertaining and overachieving Swansea team, left in the very capable hands of Michael Laudrup – a man who has more than enough experience of facing Barcelona thanks to his time at Getafe and Real Mallorca.
Laudrup's knowledge of La Liga evidently benefited the Swans this summer as they snaffled Michu from Rayo Vallecano for a scarcely believable £2 million – again proof of the value available around Europe (particularly in the economic black hole of Spain). Add Pablo Hernandez for £5.5m and then glance at Arsenal's Mikel Arteta and of course one of the players of the season so far Santi Cazorla – a bargain at £12m, and a deal Malaga's manager Manuel Pellegrini termed “an unthinkable gift” - and you have a selection of fine Spanish imports.
It is not just restricted to these two sides, or indeed this season though. Look back to Rafa Benitez's Liverpool team and the numerous Spaniards he brought to the club. Jose Mourinho carted a number of Portuguese players from the side that lost to Greece in the final of Euro 2004 to Chelsea. Wenger has previous as well. In fact, his penchant for French talent is the the biggest indication that clubs follow international trends. In the wake of France's splendid World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000 showing, the Gunners boss continued to bolster his squad with French talent, adding the likes of Thierry Henry and Robert Pires to a team already boasting Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira.
In this respect the Premier League has rarely been ahead of the curve, always going along for the ride, or arriving just too late. Perhaps the huge influx of Belgian footballers in the past couple of seasons is about to herald a new dawn. Perhaps it is time to place that bet on Belgium to thrive at World Cup 2014.
The focus, though, should remain on Spain, and whether it is Juan Mata running rings around Mark Noble at Upton Park or David Silva carving through Everton's backline, Premier League headlines are rarely without a Spanish protagonist.
And that should be celebrated. The British Isles may not have found a solution to the eternal international quandary but, while we are waiting, let's absorb the brilliance of the many Spaniards on these shores. Their presence may afflict domestic growth but it is hard to deny they are gifts that keep on giving.
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