Profitable Albion: France’s Soccer Players Flock to England’s Premier League

Though England's Premier League has long relied on new blood--and rising stars--from foreign nations, binge buying by English clubs in France's modest Ligue 1 has made French players the top foreign contingent in Albion.

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Darren Staples / Reuters

Newcastle United's Yohan Cabaye (L) scores against Aston Villa during their English Premier League soccer match at Villa Park in Birmingham, central England, January 29, 2013.

Though fans of Spanish and Italian soccer championships will beg to differ, it’s hardly hyperbole to describe England’s Premier League as the most exciting professional operation in the world of professional soccer. It’s also the most expensive—with top English clubs paying out an average 70% of revenue earned in ever-rising player salaries. That, it seems, is what it takes to prevent millionaire stars like Wayne Rooney (who reportedly hauls in wages of $40,000 per day) from accepting more lucrative offers elsewhere.

But that kind of pay packet has also fueled the flow of foreign talent like Robin van Persie (Dutch), Luis Suarez (Uruguayan), and Fernando Torres (Spanish) to English sides. In fact, the Premier League’s $2.5 billion salary sweepstakes has turned England into the promised land—in footballing and financial terms—for so many foreign players (around 356 of a total 574 working for top tier sides) that some fans worry the national game is losing its distinct English flair.

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Such concerns won’t be allayed now that English clubs which boast bottomless pockets and the biggest names in the game have also started binge buying in Europe’s hard discount shop: France’s professional Ligue 1. The reason? With Premier League clubs suffering collective losses of $596 million last year, front offices are looking to find new, promising blood at cheaper prices. And given its reputation as one of Europe’s most somnolent, under-performing leagues, France’s Ligue 1 represents a second-hand shop English clubs are mining in search of unearthing diamonds.

The biggest Premier League enthusiasts of French talent has been Newcastle—a club that snatched up five players in January alone. Those acquisitions sent the total number sporting the jersey to 11– reportedly a record number of French players working for any English team at a given time. But Newcastle’s France fetish is only notable in being extreme, not unique. France’s current total of 33 Premier League players is the largest contingent of foreign hires—ahead of Ireland’s 29, Spain’s 27, and Scotland’s 22. And Newcastle will be pretty pleased with their new acquisitions as the Toon Army achieved their first road win of the season on Tuesday, beating Aston Villa 2-1.

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True, England’s French foreign legion has remained pretty constant at around 31 players for much of the past decade. But that consistency has been relatively rare among European nations. Of late, inflows from continental leagues have slowed, with an increasing level of recruits to English sides coming from African countries. As luck—and colonial history—would have it, many of those new African players in England were bought from French clubs they came up with.

The same is true with another nation increasingly represented on Premier League pitches: Belgium. Like Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, young Belgian talent crossed the Channel for England after being spotted spinning their wheels in France’s technically impressive but often sluggish pro league. In doing so, they generally saw their salaries rise thanks to TV and marketing revenues of English clubs that dwarf what the French sides pull in.

How much more? That’s difficult to say for sure, but some indicators exist. Media reports over the past year corroborate calculations made last year by Belgian media comparing average salaries in several national pro leagues. According to those findings, average yearly salary for a play in Belgium’s top division was $284,300, versus $473,100 for a Dutch peer; and $727,900 in France’s Ligue 1. By contrast, that same survey estimated annual average salary in the Premier League at $2.2 million—not far from the pre-bonus figure of $1.82 million the Daily Mail worked up in 2011.

When it comes to allure, it’s hard for any other rival to compete with Premier League wallets. French clubs don’t have the appeal or resources English rivals do, which leaves them with a fraction of the resources to use for salaries. Meantime, though French and British income tax rates are nearly the same (around 50%), many English clubs pick up the taxman’s pinch within the overall remuneration package. Apart from the newly rich, Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain, few if any French clubs assume player tax liabilities. Worse still, what modest funds French teams do have to devote salaries are weighed down by social charges every French boss pays the state in addition to wages. That extra labor cost represents about 50% on top of salaries paid.

Contrarians will rightly argue that the French migration to more alluring foreign leagues isn’t new—and never signaled the end of France’s footballing world before. Greats like Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane both played in Italy (with Zidane then becoming an original Galactico for  Spain’s Real Madrid). Meantime, David Ginola, Eric Cantona, and Thierry Henry not only traversed the Channel to become veritable legends for leading English clubs—but in so doing did much to earn their subsequent hero status back in France.

Then what’s different this time? Perhaps that whereas earlier generations of France’s border-jumping stars reunited to bag French national teams two European Championships, the 1998 World Cup, and 2006 World Cup runner-up spot, the current crop looks utterly lost and alien reassembled under the French flag. Les Bleus are ranked 17th by FIFA, far behind number one Spain, number four Italy, and number six England. Yet it’s in those leagues most French expat players excel as pros. Something, clearly, is getting lost in footballing translation.

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