Swallowing the Bitter Pill: England, the Premier League and the World Cup

Author and artwork: Patrick Rhodes

Discussions abound about England’s chances at the 2014 edition of the World Cup. For a country which has produced elite football players such as Gary Neville, John Terry and Paul Scholes (and yes, David Beckham), there isn’t a lot of optimism about their chances this summer. The sports collective favors Brazil followed by Argentina, Germany or perhaps Spain (defending champs) to win it all. In other words, nobody is predicting an English title for this edition yet everybody is looking for something to blame. It’s become somewhat trendy to blame the Premier League (England’s top professional Association Football league) for England’s national team downfall. Why? Because fewer than 1/3 of its players are actually English. Rampant speculation about this phenomenon has led to intense discussion at all levels of the sport in England – the same country in which the sport was invented. Let’s try to settle this debate.

Best League in the World?
It’s worthwhile to examine the Premier League (PL) in relation to other professional leagues in order to shed light on England’s World Cup performances. Across the planet and in many nations, people love Association Football (that’s soccer for the Americans). Most of these nations also boast a professional league (several, in some cases). A global sport buoyed by national professional leagues produces the inevitable debate over which one is “best”. It’s been discussed with statistics and as well as conjecture, but the issue will never be truly settled. Further complicating matters is the disparity of teams within the same league – some have tons of cash, others not so much. That can produce a team which is globally competitive, but in a league which is not.

In most professional sports without a salary cap, there is usually a wide gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”. This can sometimes produce a couple of teams which dominate their respective leagues. Such is the case with the Premier League (and many association football leagues), although the PL is now working under the Financial Fair Play Regulations (“FFP”)

If we “follow the money” (for 2013) and judge a league not only by its top teams, but also the bottom-feeders and every team in between (in terms of money), then the Premier League is indeed the best (meaning: although Manchester City is an outlier, most of the league isn’t as far behind, salary-wise as in other leagues [1]).


Figure 1*
*Where’s Brazil, France, etc? There was no reliable salary data for those countries.

Even judging the league by salary isn’t necessarily an accurate measurement of a players’ skill. We’ve all seen overpaid, overhyped players demanding large paychecks while not living up to the fans’ (or coaches) expectations. Still, the highest concentration – league-wide – of the world’s most skilled players can be found in the Premier League which is flush with cash. It’s certainly at the top end of the global scale in terms of competitiveness, so it’s safe to say that England has an A+ professional league and probably the best overall league.

English Footballers

If England has the best pro league, then it makes sense that they would have the best World Cup team – unless the players in that same league aren’t from England. If we are to assume that the PL is indeed the best out there, we should check to see how many of those players are English. A quick look at the transfer market reveals a rather striking downward trend in the percentage of home-grown talent in the PL. In fact, less than 1/3 of the league is actually comprised of footballers from England [2].

Bosman Ruling: Before 1995, players had a difficult time transferring from team to team in addition to playing in other countries. After 1995, the trade market exploded which resulted in an influx of foreign players to the Premier League (and other professional leagues) [3].


Figure 2

It stands to reason that before the Premier League existed (pre-1992), the percentage of Englishmen was at least 70% and probably higher (it was difficult to switch teams before 1995). It’s not that the PL is filled with players from one foreign nationality; rather, 5 the other 68% come from 65 different countries [4]. The PL should be complemented on its wide diversity of its players. Now that we know the PL is comprised of players from all over the planet and that only 1/3 of them are English, does that impact England’s National Team at the World Cup?

England and the World Cup

On the world’s stage, country vs. country, England hasn’t won a World Cup since 1966 – and that was the only year they ever claimed the prize – and that was when it was hosted in England [5]. However, historically speaking, England fares pretty well at the World Cup.

Fun Fact: 30% of the nations which host the World Cup win it [6]!

What, you disagree?

After all, you argue, they haven’t even made it to the semi-finals since the glory year of 1966 (the lone exception coming in 1990 when they came in fourth), To that, I would respond: when you measure results in absolute numbers (1st place, 5th place, 12th place, etc.) without taking into context the total number of participants, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking a team did poorly. Measuring performance in relative numbers (taking into consideration the total number of teams), while not sexy, is a much better way to determine how well a team did in competition.

Figure 3

England, historically speaking, has outperformed about 70% (on average) of the other teams at the World Cup – when they qualify [7]. If you factor in the years they haven’t qualified or chose not to enter (yes, I know – perhaps I should not count these), they outperform 48% of the competition. Ouch! Even so, the only countries that have fared better are Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina – you may remember that several of those are the same countries favored to win it this year. When taken as a whole, England does pretty well.

Brazil is the only country to qualify for every World Cup since its inception [8]


Table 1

Take a look again at Figures 2 and 3. Since 1992, England has failed to qualify only once (1994) for the World Cup. Further, they are playing rather deep into the tournament and against a larger field (32 teams vs 24). It can be argued that they are actually player better and more consistently since the Premier League was formed. That makes sense to this author’s ears – if you want to beat the best, you have to play the playing the world’s best.

Conclusion: The performance of England’s National Team is not negatively impacted by the number of English players in the Premier League. If anything, it appears to be slightly beneficial and neutral at worst.

If England’s historical performance numbers hold for 2014, England will probably finish around 6th or 7th (outperforming over 80% of the teams), but of course everybody has a chance to win at the World Cup (I’m certainly pulling for England!). For England, most oddsmakers have quantified that chance as 33-to-1 for World Cup glory this year (Brazil is favored at 3-to-1).

England’s Footballing Future

There has been talk about capping the number of foreign players in the Premier League, thereby promoting more English players into it in hopes to bolster their World Cup chances:

“Well, if the Premier League don’t introduce a cap on foreign players to four or five in a team, I can tell you that England will never win another tournament [9].”
— Billy Hamilton, 2013

“Unless there is some sort of ratio idea that UEFA president Michel Platini has been advocating over the years, I expect that we are not going to resolve that problem [10].”
— Lord Triesman, 2013

As already mentioned, when that was the case in the past, it made no difference at the World Cup (see Figures 2 and 3). Further, this would dilute the competition in the PL and it would most likely devolve into something other than the world’s best. In other words, the best non-English players would simply go elsewhere and the money would follow – and England would still fare no better at the World Cup.

The Elite Player Performance Plan was installed in 2011 to address the diminishing presence of professional English players in the Premier League as well as other top professional leagues.

English footballers are very good, but they aren’t the world’s best when facing off against other countries. It’s a humbling reality – a bitter pill to swallow. Realizing this, the Premier League created EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan) in 2011. The goal is to provide younger players with better coaching and competition and younger ages to better prepare them for the professional leagues. Similar programs have been implemented in Spain, France and Germany. Over time, if the players are hungry enough, they will rise to the challenge and England might find themselves as favorites at the World Cup in a few years. Only time will tell.


No country can dominate the World Cup year after year – association football is too big, existing on a global scale. Brazil has come the closest, winning 5 out of 19 (26%) contests. The World Cup will probably expand to 40 teams in the near future. That will complicate matters for any team pushing to win it all. Statistically-speaking, the odds of winning go down for any one team, but that also means the odds of placing last also go down. In other words, England probably won’t fare any worse, relatively-speaking.

If England really wants to increase their chances, it should continue to develop younger players as mentioned above. Of course, they have their work cut out for them considering all of the daily distractions coming from social media, video games and the instant gratification society in which we live. There’s a lot out there taking up a youth’s attention these days. If you want the youngsters to play football, then you better invest in them, give them resources and show personal support of their efforts. Just waiting on them to “turn pro” on their own in a distracting culture risks losing them to other activities.

Lastly it doesn’t hurt your chances to win if you host the World Cup. 30% of the nations that host it win it. The last time England won in 1966? They hosted it. Get those hosting bids in place, gentlemen.


1. SportingIntelligence.com (2013). Sports Salaries Database [Data File]; available from

2. TransferMarkt.co.uk (2014). Player Statistics – Foreign Players [Data File]; available from http://www.transfermarkt.co.uk/en/premier-league/gastarbeiter/wettbewerb_GB1.html

3. Antonioni, Peter and Cubbin, John. The Bosman Ruling and the Emergence of a Single
Market in Soccer Talent. European Journal of Law and Economics (March 2000); available from http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/~sm340/Research/bosman.pdf

4. TransferMarkt.co.uk (2014). Player Statistics – Foreign Players [Data File]; available from http://www.transfermarkt.co.uk/en/premier-league/gastarbeiter/wettbewerb_GB1.html

5. FIFA, 1966 FIFA World Cup England (last accessed April 22, 2014); available from http://www.fifa.com/tournaments/archive/worldcup/england1966/

6. Wikipedia, FIFA World Cup (last accessed May 1, 2014); available from http://

7. Wikipedia, England National Football Team (last accessed April 30, 2014); available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/England_national_football_team

8. Wikipedia, Brazil National Football Team (last accessed April 30, 2014); available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazil_national_football_team

9. BBC, State of the Game: Premier League now less than one third English (last accessed
April 2, 2014), available from http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/24467371

10. Ibid

Bio: For more information on the author of this article, please visit: https://rhodestales.com