Barely an hour had passed before the inquest began. A brace from Luis Suárez had given Uruguay a vital 2-1 victory over England, all but confirming another underwhelming exit from an international tournament for the Three Lions, who went on to finish bottom of their World Cup group after collecting a solitary point against already-qualified Costa Rica.
Disappointment abounded, and fans immediately hypothesised about the primary reasons behind England’s latest failing. Some suppositions were inevitably outlandish, yet many were rational and well thought-out, chief among them the lack of a mid-season winter break and the self-inflicted problems arising from a structural conflict of interests between the Premier League and Football Association.
Another equally valid theory regarded the paucity of English footballers playing abroad. Interestingly, this concern was not really voiced after South Africa 2010 – the scene of England’s previous major debacle – when the Premier League could still legitimately claim to be the strongest in the world after supplying three out of four Champions League semi-finalists for three seasons in a row between 2007 and 2009. Since then, England’s top division has grown relatively weaker and, when combined with the national team’s continued underachievement, this has led to the growing realisation that the insularity of English players is harming the country’s prospects at international level.
It was not a surprise, therefore, when Ashley Cole and Micah Richards’ respective moves to Roma and Fiorentina were greeted with widespread commendation. Cole may have announced his international retirement prior to the World Cup in Brazil and Richards is not part of the current England setup, yet the pair’s decision to move overseas was refreshing nonetheless. Both full-backs have already opined that many of their compatriots appear too unwilling to step out of their comfort zone and play abroad, but it is worth remembering that the path between England and Serie A was not always such a rarely trodden one.
Jimmy Greaves’ arrival at AC Milan in 1961 was met with quiet optimism by fans of the Rossoneri. Three lesser-known Englishmen had appeared in Serie A before Greaves, but Johnny Jordan, Charles Adcock and Anthony Marchi could not match the pedigree of the Londoner, who would go on to score 44 goals for England. Milan had gone two years without a trophy, and the signing of Greaves was seen as a signal of their ambition ahead of the new season.
Greaves’ Italian adventure, however, was over before it really started. At the time of Milan’s bid, English football’s maximum wage ruling was still in force, and Greaves was tempted by the higher salary on offer in Italy. With cruel timing, England abolished their salary cap just as the transfer was being finalised, leaving Greaves with the realisation that he would not be earning much more in Italy’s second city than he would have been in the English top-flight. The former Chelsea striker tried to cancel the deal before leaving London but, having agreed a £80,000 fee with the Blues, Milan understandably refused to budge.
Greaves’ spell at the San Siro lasted just twelve games. The problems did not come on the pitch –Greaves scored nine times and troubled Italian defences with his clever movement and positioning – but off it, the Englishman either unable or unwilling to acclimatise to the culture of Italian football and life in general. Greaves was frequently fined by Milan’s disciplinarian manager Nereo Rocco for breaching club rules on diet and smoking; Rocco liked to control all aspects of the club, even setting boundaries on where his players could go in their free time, and Greaves, used to a more laid-back approach at Chelsea, failed to adapt. In December 1961, Milan accepted a £100,000 bid from Tottenham for the England international, and Greaves returned home after just six months.
Of the seven English players to migrate to the peninsula in the 1980s, Trevor Francis was the most successful. The forward may have just won two European Cups at Nottingham Forest and been the world’s first £1 million player, but there remained a feeling that he had yet to fulfil his potential at the highest level; Sampdoria, who had just returned to Serie A after a four-year exile, offered a great opportunity to suppress those doubts when they signed Francis from Manchester City in 1982.
Backed by ambitious president Paolo Mantovani, Sampdoria wasted little time in strengthening their squad that summer, Liam Brady, Roberto Mancini and Dario Bonetti joining Francis as new acquisitions. The Blucerchiati then made an astonishing start to the season, beating Juventus, Roma and Inter in their first three games, with Francis himself netting a wonderful goal at the San Siro. Sampdoria’s form soon tailed off, but their eventual seventh-place finish was highly respectable for a newly-promoted side and, although Francis’ season was disrupted by injuries, he finished the campaign with a decent return of seven goals in fourteen league games.
Francis’ entire time at Sampdoria unfortunately followed his debut season’s pattern of positive performances amidst niggling injuries. Despite being frequently side-lined, Francis impressed fans and media alike with his pace, first touch and link-up play, and while his overall goal-scoring record was modest, this probably spoke more to the emphasis Italian clubs tended to place on defending during those years.
Sampdoria went on to win the scudetto and Cup Winners Cup in 1990 and reach the Champions League final a year later, accomplishments that would not have been possible without the foundations laid in the mid-1980s, when Francis, Roberto Mancini, Gianluca Vialli and others established the club in Serie A and won the 1985 Coppa Italia. Francis moved to Rangers in 1987 after a year at Atalanta, but his time at Sampdoria was never forgotten: the club recently invited him to a Genoa derby as a guest of honour, and Fabio Capello labelled him as ‘the best Englishman to have ever played in Italy’.
Given Serie A’s position at the time as the undisputed best league in the world, it is somewhat surprising that only seven English footballers played in Italy in the 1990s. While Paul Gascoigne’s three years at Lazio were unsurprisingly eventful and Paul Ince’s battling displays earned him the affection of Internazionale fans, it is David Platt who is considered Italy’s best English import in the final decade of the 20th century.
AS Bari parted with £5.5 million to bring Platt to the Stadio San Nicola in July 1991, and the midfielder’s eleven goals helped the Southerners to avoid the drop that season. Platt’s all-action displays won him many Italian admirers, not least Roberto Mancini, who attempted to persuade Platt to join him at Sampdoria after Bari were relegated in 1993. Mancini was left disappointed as Platt chose Juventus but, after struggling to hold down a first-team place in Turin, Mancini’s pestering paid off: Platt joined Sampdoria in 1993, and went on to star in the team that won the 1994 Coppa Italia under Sven-Göran Eriksson.
Unlike Greaves and, to some extent, Francis, Platt embraced Italian life to the maximum, declaring upon moving to Southern Europe: ‘I want to be an Italian, speak Italian, live like an Italian, and eat like an Italian’. He began language lessons immediately, read up on the history of his clubs, and even joined the Bari ultras in the stands for a game when he was suspended. Not only did his positive attitude endear him to the Italian public, it also gave Platt the best chance of succeeding on the pitch.
Ashley Cole and Micah Richards have both already hinted that they will be taking a similar approach, the former asserting at his first Roma press conference that ‘this is a chance for me to try a different language, culture and way of living’. It is still early days and there have been rumours of a move to MLS in January, but contrary to reports, Cole appears to be settling in well: while his on-field performances in Rome have perhaps not yet reached the exemplary levels he set for himself during a decade-and-a-half of playing in London, Cole’s start has been steady, and boss Rudi Garcia recently announced that he already has a grasp of Italian. Richards, too, appears keen to immerse himself in la dolce vita, exclaiming in an interview that ‘it would have been the easy choice to stay in England [but] I just thought it was the right decision to move here. It’s a good league, a beautiful place, the lifestyle is unbelievable and the people are so friendly’.
There is little doubt that other countries have benefitted greatly from their players going overseas, and it is hopeful that more Englishmen will follow the lead of the full-backs in the coming years. As Cole himself demonstrated by making the move to the Italian capital at 33, it is never too late.
By Greg Lea. Follow @GregLeaFootball